At the start of legislative session in January, we outlined our top priorities for the 2021 legislative session. We guessed that, because of COVID-19, this would be a legislative session like no other, and so far, that’s been true. Every week so far, for instance, Smart Justice leaders have been outside of the Capitol building in Hartford (distanced, masked, and outdoors), engaging in what we call “parking lot advocacy” – safely talking to legislators about critical bills in the Capitol parking lot, one of the only places where people can interact with their legislators in person. Meanwhile, hundreds of ACLU of Connecticut supporters have emailed their legislators on bills around prosecutorial accountability, early voting, and absentee voting bills. While online activism is something we do during non-pandemic years, it’s even more critical now, when some of the only feedback legislators can get from constituents is online.
Now, the 2021 legislative session is halfway finished. All legislative committees have passed their “joint favorable” deadlines, which are the dates by which the committee needs to have voted a bill out of committee for it to be up for consideration for a vote on the House or Senate floors.
As of April 26, 2021, here is where critical bills on civil rights and liberties stand:
S.B. 1019, a bill to start creating a Clean Slate for some people living with a criminal record, passed out of the Judiciary Committee and awaits action from the Senate. Smart Justice has been advocating for this bill to pass into law, daily. While we support a Clean Slate for anyone living with a criminal record, this bill unfortunately does not include everyone. It would, however, help a lot of people, and we support it as a first step toward creating a light at the end of the tunnel for every person who has served their time and earned their chance to be part of society. S.B. 1019 would automatically erase a record after a defined period of time (the time period varies for people based on type of conviction). Critically, it also includes anti-discrimination protections to prevent someone whose record has been erased from being discriminated against in employment, housing, or public services because of their erased record. For the bill to pass, it would need to pass a floor vote in the Senate, then a floor vote in the House, and would then need action from Governor Lamont.
H.B. 6474 is a bill to prevent discrimination on the basis of a record of arrest or conviction if the arrests or convictions are unrelated to the job, if the arrests or convictions happened a long time ago, or if the employee has proven rehabilitation under existing state law. Smart Justice has been advocating for this law every day as a necessary step toward making sure employers are hiring people based on who they are and their skills and qualifications, not stereotypes and blanket bans based on a moment in someone’s past. Importantly, this bill does not exclude people based on type of record, meaning it requires people to be assessed based on their individual fit for a job. The bill passed out of the Labor and Public Employees Committee and awaits action from the House of Representatives. For the bill to pass, it would need to pass a floor vote in the House, then a floor vote in the Senate, and would then need action from Governor Lamont.
S.B. 1018, a bill to start holding prosecutors accountable to basic democratic checks and balances, unfortunately died in the Judiciary Committee without a committee vote. Prosecutors were deeply opposed to this common-sense bill, which included shortening State’s Attorneys’ term lengths from the extreme outlier of eight years down to four; required prosecutors to follow existing state law by creating basic principles for different parts of criminal cases; and would have required State’s Attorneys, who currently do not have any data-based performance evaluations, to undergo performance evaluations from the Criminal Justice Commission every two years. During a committee hearing on the bill, however, both prosecutors and public defenders admitted that -- as Smart Justice has been saying all along – the way that someone is treated by prosecutors is very different from zip code to zip code in our state. Prosecutors succeeded in preventing the legislature from beginning to hold them to basic standards this year, but Smart Justice will keep fighting for Connecticut to begin holding prosecutors accountable to justice, equity, and democracy.
Together with the NAACP of Connecticut and other allies, we have been fighting for more than a decade to end prison gerrymandering in Connecticut. This year, S.B. 753 offers another once-in-a-decade chance for our state to end this racist, undemocratic practice. Under prison gerrymandering, Connecticut counts incarcerated people in the place where they are incarcerated, instead of in their home communities, for the purposes of drawing legislative and congressional district maps. In the process, it inflates the power of the districts where prisons are located, which are predominantly white and rural, at the expense of the districts where incarcerated people reside, which are predominantly Black, Latinx, and urban. Ten states have already enacted legislation to end this practice, and Connecticut has a chance to be the next. S.B. 753 bill passed out of the Government Administration and Elections Committee and now awaits action in the Senate.
For years, we’ve been advocating for Connecticut to join most of the rest of the country by adopting early voting. While Georgia’s legislature rightfully took a lot of heat this year for its bill to suppress voters’ rights – especially Black voters’ – Connecticut’s early voting and absentee voting laws remain worse than the restrictions in Georgia’s voter suppression bill. H.J. 59 would give Connecticut voters a chance to decide about whether our state should have early voting.
Creating early voting in Connecticut would require amending our state’s constitution to overturn our state’s existing ban on early voting. To create that amendment, voters would need to vote for it at the ballot box. And to get that question before voters, the legislature needs to approve it. In 2019, the legislature passed a bill to put the question of early voting before voters. Because the bill didn’t pass with a supermajority in both chambers (it passed with a supermajority in one but not the other), it only needs to pass with at least a simple majority (50%) in both chambers during the 2021 legislative session in order to put the question before voters on the 2022 ballot. H.J. 59 passed out of the General Elections and Administration Committee and now needs a vote on the House floor (you can email your legislators to tell them to bring it up for a vote now). It is vitally important for the House to bring H.J. 59 up for a vote in time for the Senate to act on it. If it passes with a simple majority in the House and Senate, it would be on the ballot for voters to decide in 2022.
We’ve been advocating for years for Connecticut to join the 21st century by allowing no-excuse absentee voting for any eligible voter who wants to use it. H.J. 58 would give voters a chance to decide about whether our state should have no-excuse absentee voting. Like early voting, creating absentee voting in Connecticut would require amending the state’s constitution. H.J. 58 has passed out of the General Elections and Administration Committee and now awaits action from the House. To get the question of absentee voting the ballot for voters to decide, H.J. 58 would need to do one of two things: 1) pass out of both legislative chambers (house and senate) with at least a 75% supermajority in this legislative session, in which case the question would appear before voters on the ballot on the 2022 ballot, or 2) pass out of both legislative chambers of the legislature with a majority (50%) vote in two consecutive legislatures (the 2021 legislature and the 2023 legislature), in which case it would appear on the ballot on the next statewide election after the second vote.
Incarcerated people’s rights, dignity, and health
We support our colleagues with Stop Solitary CT, who are advocating for The PROTECT Act, S.B. 1059, which has passed out of the Judiciary Committee. This bill would end solitary confinement in Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC)-run prisons and jails, increase transparency and external oversight of the DOC, develop policies around social contact for people who are incarcerated, and increase transparency around the use of restraints and isolation in the DOC. We also support our colleagues with Worth Rises in their effort to support incarcerated people’s mental health and vital family and support network connections by making prison phone calls free for incarcerated people and their loved ones. S.B. 972, to make prison phone calls free, has passed out of the Judiciary Committee, and the Appropriations Committee has included funding for those phone calls in its proposed budget; the bill awaits action in the Senate.
Equitable cannabis legalization
There are two different bills pending in the legislature regarding cannabis legalization, and we have weighed in on both. Our biggest goal around any cannabis legalization effort remains ensuring that it invests in the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs – especially Black and Latinx communities – by creating equity in access, financial investment in those communities, and erasing or overturning people's marijuana-related convictions.
In a positive and long-overdue step, the Governor and Department of Correction have announced that they plan to close Northern Correctional Institution this year. With our allies from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, SEIU-1199 New England, and Yale Transitions Clinic, we have been advocating for the state to take the millions of dollars saved from closing Northern and to reinvest that money into healthcare, housing, and reentry programs and services for people who have been most harmed by mass incarceration. While S.B. 987, a bill to create that reinvestment, did not pass out of the Judiciary Committee, there is still a chance for that reinvestment principle to be included as part of the legislature’s proposed budget. With our allies, we will be advocating for the Appropriations Committee to put the money saved from closing Northern into healthcare for people who are incarcerated, mobile mental health crisis units run by healthcare workers in communities most affected by incarceration, peer-led healthcare services for formerly incarcerated people, reentry housing supports so nobody leaves incarceration homeless, and Clean Slate implementation.
The good: S.B. 5, a voting rights bill, includes a lot of important provisions to make voting more accessible for people with disabilities, prevent voter intimidation, and improve and expand automatic voter registration systems. Critically, the bill would extend voting rights for people who are on parole. Right now, Connecticut prohibits people who are on parole for a felony conviction from voting, and it requires people on parole to fully pay any fines they owe the state before their voting rights can be restored. This bill would allow people to vote if they are on parole and were convicted of a felony or are on parole and owe the state fines. In doing so, this would remove two Jim Crow voter suppression measures (disenfranchising people living with a felony conviction on parole, and poll taxes for people on parole), from Connecticut’s laws. The bill has passed out of committee and awaits action in the Senate.
The bad: On police accountability, H.B. 6462 weakened the already-imperfect standard for when police in Connecticut are allowed to use deadly force. The bill passed through the legislature, was signed into law by Governor Ned Lamont, and went into effect on March 31. The previous standard, created in the July 2020 police accountability bill, already reflected a compromise, and this new law is a step backward. Also on police accountability, S.B. 1093 would undo restrictions on stop and frisk created by last summer’s police accountability bill and make body camera footage even less accessible to people and even more useful only for police. While the bill includes a ban on no-knock warrant raids by police, that piece is a trojan horse in a bill that would otherwise make police even less accountable to the public than they already are. We are opposing this bill, which passed out of the Judiciary Committee. On racial justice and privacy, H.B. 5429 would expose more Black and Latinx people to government surveillance and police overreach by giving an entirely new surveillance tool – speed cameras at traffic lights – to towns and cities. Pedestrian safety is critically important, but instead of infrastructure improvements, this bill seeks to extend surveillance and police discretion, especially in Black and Latinx communities that are already over-policed, and to create new surveillance-based fines and fees that can lead to criminalizing people who can’t afford to pay them or who don’t receive notice of them. The bill would allow license plate data to be handed over to state police, and potentially federal agencies. In addition, it would allow towns and cities to install speed cameras, without any protections to protect due process, prevent someone who doesn’t receive notice from having fines and fees pile up, or require transparency around where the cameras are installed – all issues that will disproportionately hurt low-income people and people of color. And it would create a new infraction for opening a car door or leaving a car door open, creating a new opportunity for police to use their discretion to target Black and Latinx people for tickets. We oppose this bill, which passed out of the Transportation Committee.
Legislative session ends on June 9. As we head into the last weeks of session, we know the clock is ticking on all of these bills. We also know that while the good bills mentioned above are critically important, the keys to liberation, including creating real racial justice and thriving communities, will always lie with the people who fight for freedom and equity every day. Legislation is just one piece of the puzzle toward undoing past harm and making our state better, and as we keep working for new laws to be the best they can be, we’ll also need you with us to keep pushing for a better world, in and outside of the legislature.