The 2021 legislative session is going to look and feel a little different. As COVID-19 continues, the session is going to be virtual, making it all the more important for people to engage with our legislators online – on social media, in virtual public hearings, and any way we can. The legislature must also grapple with the vast inequities that COVID-19 re-exposed, including in this year’s budget, and with the clear mandate sent by Connecticut voters to prioritize racial justice. Because the 2020 legislative session was cut short by COVID-19, a lot of unfinished business remains from last year. Each step of the way, the ACLU of Connecticut is going to be pushing for equity, justice, and freedom.
These are some of the most critical bills we want the legislature to prioritize this year.
Accountability for state’s attorneys
Prosecutors are among the most powerful and least accountable actors in the criminal legal system. In Connecticut, the state’s criminal legal system is divided up into thirteen different judicial districts, each headed by a top prosecutor known as a state’s attorney. While people may know that Connecticut is one of the few states where these head prosecutors are unelected, many people don’t realize that our state is also an extreme outlier in the length of time these prosecutors can be in power, and in the lack of other accountability measures to keep that power in check. Connecticut state’s attorneys are appointed to eight-year terms (only Alaska and Tennessee have longer terms, and Tennessee’s are elected). State’s attorneys aren’t reviewed or evaluated on their performance during those eight years, but instead only face a reappointment hearing before the Criminal Justice Commission every eight years. In the interim, state’s attorneys aren’t being periodically evaluated on data that measures their performance, like whether they are addressing patterns of discrimination in charges in their judicial districts, reducing incarceration, reviewing charges brought by police, and more. Without periodic performance evaluations, state’s attorneys are denied an opportunity to explain data trends in their judicial district and to course-correct in areas of concern for the Criminal Justice Commission. It also means that when state’s attorneys are finally up for reappointment, the Criminal Justice Commission doesn’t have a track record of data-driven performance evaluations to help it make an informed decision about whether to reappoint the state’s attorney. And they’re not evaluated on one of the most high-profile parts of their power: whether they hold police accountable for using deadly force.
This year, the ACLU of Connecticut’s Smart Justice campaign will be advocating for legislators to pass a bill to start holding State’s Attorneys accountable. We’re asking for legislators to:
- reduce State’s Attorney’s term lengths from eight years to four, which would put them at a similar term length as the Chief State’s Attorney (who serves a five-year term) and deputy chief state’s attorneys (who serve four-year terms)
- create and mandate data-driven performance evaluations for State’s Attorneys, so they are evaluated publicly by the Criminal Justice Commission (with the chance for public comment), every two years, based on data about how they are treating people gathered through the prosecutorial transparency law Connecticut enacted in 2019. This would mean State’s Attorneys would be measured every two years based on the facts about whether they are discriminating against people, pursuing too-long sentences or harsh plea agreements, and otherwise driving mass incarceration, or whether they are treating people fairly and reducing racism and incarceration
- move the Criminal Justice Commission, the body in charge of selecting and evaluating State’s Attorneys, from being housed in the Division of Criminal Justice (the agency that includes State’s Attorneys) back to being housed as an independent body within the executive branch so it is independent from the agency it is tasked with overseeing.
Last year, COVID-19 reached our state the same week the legislature held a hearing on an inclusive Clean Slate bill. This year, we’re back to finish what we started in 2020. Our Smart Justice campaign will once again push for a Clean Slate bill that automatically erases a record after a defined period of time, for anyone living with a criminal record, with anti-discrimination protections to prevent someone whose record has been erased from being discriminated against in employment, housing, or public services because of their record. Clean Slate is about a light at the end of the tunnel, and a promise from the state: earn your chance to be part of society, show that you can re-enter without a new conviction, and the state will guarantee that someday, you will live record-free.
Stopping employment discrimination against people living with a record
Our Smart Justice campaign has been advocating for years to end discrimination against people living with a record in things like employment, housing, credit and financial services, licensing, and more. This year, we are asking the legislature to take up a bill to prevent discrimination against people in employment on the basis of their record. While the state’s Fair Chance Employment Act “banned the box” indicating a criminal record on job applications, people still face discrimination on the basis of their record in other ways, both when they’re job-hunting and after they have been hired. This bill would prohibit employers from discriminating against people on the basis of their record 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.
After a lawsuit and advocacy from the ACLU of Connecticut and others, Connecticut enabled any eligible voter to vote absentee in the November 3, 2020 election because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a short turnaround and high-pressure election, opening up no-excuse absentee voting to all Connecticut voters was a huge success. Our state saw record voter turnout and had an even smaller rejection rate of absentee ballots than during other elections. Connecticut voters proved that absentee voting works here, and it’s long past time for our state to make it an option for every voter in every election. This year, we’re advocating for the legislature to pass a bill to put the question of absentee voting before the voters.
Overturning Connecticut’s archaic ban on absentee voting access for everyone would require amending our state Constitution. To get a constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to decide, a bill 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 one legislative session, in which case the question would appear before voters on the ballot in the next statewide election or 2) pass out of both legislative chambers with a majority (50%) vote in two consecutive legislatures (not legislative sessions), in which case it would appear on the ballot on the next statewide election after the second vote. Only the first method would put absentee voting on the ballot in the next statewide election in 2022.
We’ll be advocating for the legislature to do its part by passing a bill by a supermajority in each chamber this year, and we’ll also be advocating for accessibility and equity around absentee voting for all – to make sure any eligible voter who wants to vote absentee can.
Connecticut is one of only six states nationwide without some form of in-person early voting. We have been advocating for years for our state to catch up to the twenty-first century, and most of our neighbors, by allowing early voting. During the presidential election in November, we heard from a lot of voters about their frustration that early voting still isn’t reality here. 2021, however, marks a critical chance for Connecticut to move forward.
As with absentee voting for all, gaining early voting in Connecticut would require a constitutional amendment to overturn our state’s existing ban on early voting. Luckily, early voting is already one third of the way to becoming reality. In 2019, Connecticut’s 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. Our work this year will include advocating for the legislature to pass the early voting bill so voters have a chance to decide in 2022, and advocating for a robust and accessible early voting period if the amendment passes with voters.
We will be supporting efforts to:
- protect incarcerated people’s health and safety, including bills to create mandatory releases and oversight of the Department of Correction during any future pandemics in prison and to allow decisionmakers greater flexibility in releasing people with critical medical conditions and needs, regardless of whether there is a pandemic.
- end prison gerrymandering, which is a disproportionate and direct attack on Black and Latino voters’ power and siphons resources from Black and Latino towns and cities
- ensure that any marijuana legalization efforts reinvest in communities most harmed by the War on Drugs by creating equity in access, financial investment in those communities, and erasing or overturning people's marijuana-related convictions
- support eviction and rent relief, and equity in COVID-19 recovery
- hold the legislature accountable for demanding racial justice and decarceration policies from the next DOC Commissioner during the legislative appointment hearing for Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros
Outside of legislature, we’re also fighting for the state to close Northern Correctional Institution and reallocate the money saved into programs and services for the people most harmed by incarceration, to include incarcerated people in vaccine roll-out equally with other people in congregate settings, and to reallocate money from policing into valuable public services like mental healthcare, addiction services, local public education, housing, jobs, infrastructure, and more.
This year will be a legislative session like no other. And we are ready to take it head-on. Our action teams – groups of volunteers ready to take action on key issues – are going to be critical in these (virtual) fights. If you’re ready to act with us on these issues, sign up to join an action team today.