Connecticut faces an enormous decision about the direction of its economic future. Yet as politicians pitch visions about their plans for prosperity, most are not talking about the staggering financial toll that criminal incarceration has had on this state. I have at least 87 billion reasons why they should.

According to the FBI statistics, one in three American adults is living with a criminal record.

Economists estimate that the country’s gross national product is reduced between $78 billion and $87 billion because so many formerly incarcerated job seekers are kept out of the workforce. Because of legal barriers to employment and persistent stereotypes, the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people is 27 percent. That is six times the general unemployment rate in Connecticut. It is higher than levels of unemployment during the Great Depression.

Connecticut’s economy will be stronger when men and women with a criminal record are able to get jobs, earn a fair wage, pay taxes and contribute to our state’s growth. There are nearly 40,000 people on probation and parole in Connecticut (only slightly less than the number of people who voted for gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski in last month’s Republican primary), many of whom will face hurdles due to their criminal records as they search for jobs. Connecticut will not become the place where people want to work, live and raise families if those affected by the criminal justice system are made an underclass that cannot contribute to the state’s economic solutions. Connecticut’s future must include everyone who calls this state home.

This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s common sense. Companies including Koch Industries, Coca-Cola, CVS Health, and Ben & Jerry’s have signed pledges committing to give those with prison records a fair chance at employment. The nation’s largest employer, the United States military, has found that enlistees with felony records are more likely to be promoted to sergeant than those with no conviction history, irrespective of other factors, including educational background.

With support from people on all sides of the political spectrum, Connecticut has adopted the Fair Chance Employment Act, a law that eliminates questions about a job applicant’s criminal record in initial employment forms, and An Act Concerning the Licensing of Barbers and Hairdressers, which lets those with a criminal record get licenses to become barbers and hairdressers. Yet barriers to employment, including barriers to occupational licensure, remain in place.

Our state will be safer, stronger and fairer when people who return home from prison are given a fair chance to be hired and support themselves and their families. Connecticut’s leaders should take Pennsylvania’s lead by introducing and supporting “clean slate” legislation that wipes clean a person’s criminal record three years after the most recent misdemeanor conviction and five years after a felony conviction. This would help people who have successfully reentered society get a fresh chance at a new start.

They should support policies to expand Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a criminal record in the realms of employment, housing, public education, insurance, credit transactions, public programs and services, and economic development programs so people can access the basic necessities they need to survive.

Connecticut, like every other New England state, should allow men and women on parole the right to vote. Even further, people who are incarcerated should be allowed to vote, because how can we expect them to be returning citizens if this basic tenet of citizenship is denied?

Connecticut is the richest state in the nation based on per-capita income, but that is not available to everyone who lives here. That’s why formerly incarcerated leaders from Smart Justice – who know a few things about rebounding from adversity – are working across the state to remind politicians that the conversation about rebuilding Connecticut must include everyone.

If Connecticut wants to address its budget woes and grow the state’s economy, then people with criminal records must have equal access to opportunities that allow them to work, live and have full citizenship.

A version of this blog appeared in the Connecticut Mirror.

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