Sen. Champagne: ‘Clean Slate’ Bill is a Mistake, Easy on Crime

May 19, 2021

From the Hartford Courant:

The state Senate voted late Tuesday for a so-called clean slate bill that would erase certain criminal convictions for those who don’t reoffend for at least seven years afterward.

The bill would erase most misdemeanors and some felonies, but lawmakers clashed sharply over which crimes should be included in the bill. The proposal has been blocked by lawmakers for years because of similar disagreements.

After a spirited debate for 3 1/2 hours that lasted until 9:45 p.m., the Senate voted 23-12 on strict party lines with Democrats in favor and Republicans against. Sen. Mae Flexer, a Danielson Democrat, was the only lawmaker who was absent.

Democrats offered the contentious measure as part of criminal justice reforms and a “second chance” society so that convicted criminals would have a better chance at gaining employment, obtaining professional licenses and leasing an apartment after being released from prison.

But opponents said that too many serious crimes could still be erased, including those classified as Class D felonies. Those include second-degree strangulation or suffocation, third-degree possession of child pornography that includes having fewer than 20 pictures, first-degree breach of peace and second-degree assault of an elderly, blind, disabled, pregnant or intellectually disabled person with a firearm.

Other crimes that could be erased include second-degree stalking, first-degree unlawful restraint, third-degree promoting prostitution and third-degree burglary with a firearm.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk strongly defended the bill, saying that Democrats do not favor any of the crimes but instead want former criminals to have another chance after they have been released from prison. Duff added that he is proud of the criminal justice reforms that the legislature has passed, saying they have reduced the inmate population and led to the closure of prisons.

“Nobody wants to see a pregnant woman assaulted,” Duff said. “This bill simply is about whether we believe someone who has paid the price…deserves to have a second chance. … This bill gives a step for people to get their lives back.”

Republicans offered multiple amendments, including to remove the potential erasure of criminally negligent homicide — a crime where a victim has died. The amendment failed, 21-14, on mostly party lines with Democrats Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Cathy Osten of Sprague voting with the Republicans.

Criminally negligent homicide and other misdemeanors would be erased after seven years. Eligible felonies would be erased 10 to 15 years after the latest conviction.

Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s judiciary committee, said that the bill should remain as written and not amended. He noted that the criminal records would be deleted permanently.

“If the record is erased, the former record cannot be used against the individual,” Winfield said. “People have read these records and have misunderstood what they were reading — and it has resulted in people having a hard time with employment.”

As Republicans offered a series of amendments on each individual crime that they said should not be erased, Winfield gave a broad-based defense of the bill.

“This is not about that we shouldn’t punish people. But there is a point where punishment should end,” said Winfield, adding that he was crime victim in his youth. “We have a whole theme in which we talk about second chance. … I wish the system worked the way my mother said when she said if you do that crime, you do the time. … You can move on with your life, but you can’t get a job or it’s difficult to get a job. … This is about getting right what we have never gotten right in this country, in this state.”

But Sen. Dan Champagne, a Vernon Republican who spent 22 years as a police officer, said the Senate was making a mistake by being easy on crime.

“To me, this bill paints the prisoner as a victim,” he said. “You’re supposed to pay for your crimes. … We have victims who will be victimized for their entire life.”

Champagne said criminals already get numerous breaks under the current system with diversionary programs and accelerated rehabilitation. As a result, it would be highly unusual for someone committing their first crime to end up behind bars, he said.

“You’ve got to work at it to go to prison,” Champagne said. “If you go to prison, you’ve done something pretty bad.”

Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who has served on the judiciary committee for 27 years, said he had concerns about the rules for convicted criminals seeking employment or housing in a rental property. He later offered an amendment to strike second-degree stalking, a Class A misdemeanor, from the crimes that could be erased. His amendment, like others, was defeated.

Major crimes such as murder, along with family violence crimes and those requiring registration as a sex offender, could not be erased.

After complaints by opponents, lawmakers Tuesday dropped Class C felonies from the list — meaning that those crimes could not be erased.

Sen. Rob Sampson, a Wolcott Republican, listed a series of crimes on the Senate floor that included second-degree threatening, inciting to riot, second-degree unlawful restraint, unlawful dissemination of an intimate image by electronic or other means and third-degree abuse of an elderly or blind person that causes physical injury.

“Should such a person be eligible to have their criminal record erased?” Sampson asked during the televised debate. “What do you think — person at home watching this? Should that person be able to avoid deportation? … We should not be doing any of this.”

Sen. Cathy Osten, a former correction officer, said that not enough psychiatric and mental health is offered to those in prison across the state. A major problem, she said, is that 80% of female inmates and 28% of male inmates are considered mentally ill. Some inmates are chronic schizophrenics who do not take their medication, she said.

“Prison is not a place where someone with behavioral health or psychiatric issues should be. It doesn’t solve the problem,” Osten said. “I am begging people around the circle to deal with mental health.”

Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford said it was unusual for Democrats to vote to expand the state’s domestic violence laws on the same day that they voted to erase some criminal records.

“At the same time lawmakers are working to strengthen protections for victims of violence, Democrats want to wipe clean the records of those convicted of violent crimes, including Class D and E felonies,” Kelly said. “What kind of message does that send to victims of crimes?”