By Betty Gallo
Well, civil liberties are safe for another year the General Assembly has adjourned. It looks like they may really be out of session for this year. No more special sessions, just the veto session. What a change from last year when the session went on and on, with special session after special session. In the end, it was a pretty good year for civil liberties.
First, the good bills that passed:
HB 5657: An Act Concerning Hate Crimes.
CCLU has been a part of the Hate Crimes Coalition, which is a group of organizations advocating for improvements in our hate crimes laws and the enforcement of those laws. The coalition has been working for the last two years to pass legislation to include disability or gender identity or expression within the categories covered by our hate crimes law. The current categories are race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. The revised bill passed the House on a vote of 139-4. The four no votes were Reps. Hamzy (R-Terryville), Ferrrari (R-East Granby), Piscopo (R-Thomaston) and Rowe (R-Trumbull). It passed the Senate on consent. These votes do not reflect the difficulty of passing this legislation and the hours and hours of work by a large group of dedicated individuals that went into this victory. The Governor has not signed the bill yet but his office has assured me that he will sign it.
HB 5211: An Act Concerning Prison Overcrowding.
We have been working with Rep. Dyson (D-New Haven) and Rep. Lawlor (D-East Haven) for a number of years on this issue. The bill made a number of changes regarding parole. Some of the parole reforms were that it requires the board to hold hearings for prisoners who have served a certain amount of their time; allows the board chairman to transfer inmates granted parole to a halfway house, group home, mental health facility, or an approved community or private residence within 18 months of their parole release date; allows an inmate to receive a compassionate parole release under certain circumstances; and, requires the Board Chairman and Executive Director to create an incremental sanctions system for parole violations. The bill also allows the Department of Corrections to release people charged with only a misdemeanor or most class D felonies that are committed by the court to DOC, to a DOC approved residence. It also allows someone to participate in the alcohol and drug dependency diversion program twice, instead of once, if s/he is otherwise eligible. These are just a few of the reforms in the bill. In addition the budget includes over $16 million for community-based programs.
Next, the bad bills CCLU was instrumental in defeating. There were two bills we spent a great deal of time working against this session.
SB 493: An Act Concerning Investigative Subpoenas.
This bill would have allowed prosecutors to subpoena a person to testify or produce property including medical records related to an investigation into the possible commission of certain crimes. The Office of the Chief State's Attorney has narrowed the scope of this bill every year after we have managed to defeat it. But, CCLU continues to have serious concerns about prosecutors being able to subpoena people, including minors, with as little as 24 hours notice to testify about a crime that may have taken place. The person does not even have to be a target of the investigation, yet could face imprisonment if he or she fails to testify. The bill also allows prosecutors to subpoena documents, including very sensitive records such as psychiatric or other medical records. The bill was raised in the Judiciary Committee, had a public hearing but died in committee without a vote. Sen. Sullivan (D-West Hartford), president pro tem and now lieutenant governor, was pushing for a vote on the bill in the Senate and offered it as an amendment to HB 5439 An Act Concerning The Chief State's Attorney. The amendment died in the Senate at about 2am one morning on a vote of 13-21.
HB 5048: An Act Concerning The Lawful Residence Of Applicants For Motor Vehicle Operator's Licenses And Identity Cards.
This bill would have limited immigrant driver's licenses to the length of their visas. We only give driver's licenses to immigrants who have work or study visas, and the INS has over a year backlog of expired visas that it has not reviewed to determine if the immigrant is eligible for a visa. This bill was part of the Governor's budget package and passed the Transportation Committee on a vote of 22-5.We then got the bill referred to the Finance Committee where it passed on a vote of 23-21.The Chair of the Transportation Committee, Rep. Jackie Cocco (D-Bridgeport), convinced Rep. Bob Keeley (D-Bridgeport) to change his vote from no to yes or we would have killed the bill in Finance. After the bill went back to the House, we worked with leadership to prevent the bill from ever getting called. During the last hours of the session, Rep. Ward (R-Northford) offered the bill as an amendment to the Department of Social Services budget implementer bill, but the amendment was ruled non-germane, and the bill died in the House without ever being voted on.
Opponents of marriage for same-sex couples vowed to pass a so-called Defense of Marriage (DOMA) bill this session. But their legislative supporters never asked the Judiciary Chairs to raise a bill. So there was no actual DOMA bill ever raised. However, we spent a lot of time lobbying against a possible amendment. The other side attempted to pass an amendment in the Judiciary Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and the House by lobbying those members with phone calls, letters, and petitions. The amendments were never brought for a vote because the other side knew they did not have the votes to pass it; and, they feared that even if they were able to pass a DOMA, a civil union amendment would pass with it. In the end there was never a vote on such an amendment.
We also used this session as an opportunity to educate legislators about MATRIX (Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange). Both the Public Safety and Judiciary Committees held hearings on the State Police's involvement with this program. Barry Steinhardt from ACLU came to testify at both hearings. While we did not force the State Police to withdraw from the program (there are only four states still involved with MATRIX), we are hoping that they will be forced to withdraw when the present federal grant expires.