Connecticut could become the first state in the nation to prohibit discrimination against people with criminal records.
The legislation, known as HB 6921 or “An Act Concerning Discrimination Based On A Person’s Criminal History,” would target inequity in housing, employment, insurance, education, credit, and state programs and accommodations.
An estimated 40,000 people in Connecticut have criminal records—roughly twice the total number of people under correctional supervision in the state.
Representative Robyn A. Porter of the 94th District, which includes Hamden and New Haven, proposed the legislation. Her family has been impacted by law enforcement and the prison system.
Legislators held a public hearing on the bill on February 26, where Anderson Curtis—a formerly incarcerated organizer with Connecticut’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—testified in support.
He said people returning to society “deserve to be able to live their lives in Connecticut’s communities with the resources they need to live life to the fullest and to be law-abiding residents. Furthermore, when someone who is formerly incarcerated has a fair chance at earning a job, housing, and education, they are less likely to commit another crime. That makes us all safer and stronger.”
A few days later, members of the Labor and Public Employees Committee voted to advance the bill to the drafting stage.
The urgency for this legislation is shaped, in part, by the precarious situation into which people are thrust when they leave prison.
According to a memo from a criminal justice working group for Governor Ned Lamont’s transition team, formerly incarcerated people in Connecticut face over 600 legal and policy barriers that hinder their ability to take care of themselves and their families.
Curtis pointed to research by the state that found formerly incarcerated people between the ages of 20 and 29 were eight times more likely to die within a year of leaving prison than the average person. Meanwhile, 52 percent of people, who died from an overdose in Connecticut last year, were previously incarcerated by the state.
“Racial disparities in Connecticut’s criminal justice system are also reflected later when people returning home from incarceration reenter the community,” Curtis added. “With black and Latino men disproportionately incarcerated, we are disproportionately rejected when we return to our communities and seek to build a life worth living.”
Most prisoners are parents, which means “these barriers to reentry also harm our children when we return to society and cannot find safe housing or jobs to support our families,” Curtis said. “Despite the success I have experienced in the twelve years since I was released from prison, I dread having to explain my criminal record.”
“As soon as I reveal my criminal history, I have experienced doors closing in housing and employment, and that experience does not dissipate with time.”
Connecticut has attempted several piecemeal reforms regarding discrimination against people with criminal records in recent years. Their shortcomings reveal lessons that could guide activists, as they engage in a political battle over the extent to which this bill will be comprehensive and strongly enforceable.
Connecticut, like several other states, has enacted “Ban The Box” legislation that slightly dulls discrimination in employment by forbidding employers from asking about arrests, charges, or convictions only during the initial application. However, employers can scrutinize applicants after this application.
Under Connecticut’s version of the law, employers may still ask questions, when there is an obligation under other federal or state laws or when a position requires a security, fidelity, or equivalent bond.
To give an example, in 2016 the state expanded background check requirements for public school employees, derisively called the “Pass the Trash” bill. In 2017, Governor Dannel Malloy signed another bill that extends this requirement to any “nonpublic” school in the state as well. This legislation is enforceable over “Ban The Box” legislation, which means schools may discriminate based on criminal records.
The law also does not appear to prevent employers from learning about records in other ways during the initial application stage. For example, a criminal background check by a consumer reporting agency could be fair game.
Connecticut’s Ban The Box law also does not empower individuals to sue employers for claims of discrimination. A person must instead file a complaint with the state’s Department of Labor. Such complaints can be arduous, complex, and difficult to file, but lawsuits are not necessarily a whole lot better due to the costs of legal representation.
During the public hearing, Curtis also noted reforms in the state to help formerly incarcerated people overcome discrimination in obtaining occupational licensing for work were quite limited, omitting veterinary work, nursing, dental health, substance abuse counseling, or funeral work, from protection from discrimination.
There are no protections for formerly incarcerated people seeking private housing. Landlords have a fair amount of latitude under state and federal law to discriminate due to criminal records, and most housing support afforded to this population comes as specialized housing, such as government halfway houses and community organization-assisted housing.
Elderly people in Connecticut are currently ineligible for public housing if they have a prior conviction for possessing certain drugs within the last two years.
There are virtually no legal protections at present for other areas of discrimination that could be prohibited under this bill, which makes it even more urgent and necessary.
A strong majority of 74 percent of Connecticut voters support such legislation, including 55 percent of Republican voters, 73 percent of Independents, and 88 percent of Democrats.
Because this population is acutely vulnerable, both socially and economically, there must be an accounting of current enforcement of these laws so future protections against discrimination can have a meaningful impact on re-entry.