The running theme early in Gov. Ned Lamont’s second legislative session appears to be “Think small.”
The most visible sign of diminished expectations came in the abortive attempt to reintroduce tolls on Connecticut highways. A drastically reduced plan was pushed by the governor before it was ultimately abandoned this week in the face of insurmountable obstacles (which were almost entirely of the Democratic majority’s own making).
The governor and legislative leaders need to ensure a similar fate doesn’t befall other priorities, though early indications aren’t encouraging. On criminal justice reform, Lamont is pushing a much narrower version of the so-called Clean Slate provision than advocates have sought, calling into question his commitment to the issue and whether the bill will accomplish as much as it could.
Lamont’s proposal would automatically clear low-level misdemeanors from people’s records if they don’t commit any other crimes for seven years. It would not affect certain felonies, as advocates had hoped, and the governor’s waiting period is longer than supporters of previous versions of the bill had wanted.
The idea of Clean Slate is not to get people off the hook for crimes they have committed — it’s to ensure the sentence they serve does not follow them around for the rest of their lives. For the measure to apply to anyone, a full sentence would need to be served and the person would need to stay out of the criminal-justice system for a set period of time.
Clean Slate does not go easy on people who commit crimes. It does allow for the possibility that people can write new chapters for themselves after their sentences have been served.
Under the current system, a conviction follows an offender everywhere, making the chances of re-entering society all but impossible in some cases. People need a place to live, a job and a chance to prove themselves, all of which are infinitely harder to accomplish with a criminal record in their background.
There are currently provisions that allow for the expungement of criminal records, but the process is opaque, costly and time-consuming. Clean Slate would make the process automatic for people who have served their time and stayed out of trouble.
There is no version of the plan that would apply to violent crimes, so it’s not as though murderers would be walking free with no way for anyone to know about their past.
Lamont says all the right things: “You served your time — you deserve that second chance. Whatever happened some years ago is not a lifetime sentence.” This is the logic behind Clean Slate and one that lawmakers should get behind. Even in its narrower version, the bill should be passed to allow more people an opportunity for a fresh start in life.
But it can’t be the end of the process. To give people a chance to escape the revolving door of the criminal justice system, where too many citizens find it impossible to rebuild their lives after serving their time, Connecticut must make Clean Slate a priority.