There has been a lot of talk lately, nationally and statewide, about the need for employers to treat people better in order to attract more job applicants. One place for our state to start is with workers who are trying to support themselves and their families while living with a record of arrest or conviction.
A few facts: The majority of people incarcerated in Connecticut prisons and jails are parents. Because of systemic racism in policing, prosecutions, sentencing, and the criminal legal system as a whole, more than two -thirds of people incarcerated in Connecticut are Black or Latinx, meaning the harms of incarceration most fall on Black and Latinx families. Nationwide, more than 95 percent of people who are incarcerated will return to society. When people with a record of arrest or conviction return to society in Connecticut, they face more than 500 legal barriers to their and their families’ survival, and the majority of these are in employment.
Together, these facts mean that thousands of people in our state face a lifetime of being shut out of jobs based not on who they are or the skills they bring, but on stereotypes about their record of arrest or conviction. By extension, these barriers to employment hurt their families, and it disproportionately hurts Black and Latinx families.
Last year, Connecticut passed a Clean Slate law to start breaking the cycle of perpetual punishment after someone has completed their prison sentence, probation, or parole. Clean Slate is a significant way for thousands of Connecticut residents and their families to have a better chance at survival.
Any time we make progress toward human rights, though, there remains work to be done. That’s true of Clean Slate, and it’s also true of Connecticut’s other employment law that protects some people living with a record of arrest or conviction.
Clean Slate in Connecticut is groundbreaking in part because it includes protections to prevent people from being discriminated against on the basis of their erased record. Through this part of the law, if an employer, landlord, or other entity named under Connecticut’s existing anti-discrimination law tries to deny someone access to services because of their erased record, the person harmed has the right to file a claim with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO). We all know that the internet lives forever, and this provision in Clean Slate is meant to protect people from the harm that can come if a googling landlord or boss decides to lock someone out of an apartment or a job because of an arrest or conviction that happened years ago.
Existing Connecticut law also protects people from discrimination on the basis of their record in public employment. Under this law, state employers must evaluate someone on the basis of their skills and credentials and may only consider someone’s record of arrest or conviction if it is directly relevant to the job at hand. In other words, the state already has a law to prevent blanket bans that exclude justice-impacted people from employment based on broad stereotypes about them.
But both of these laws have some obvious gaps that legislators must close.
Under Clean Slate, people’s records are automatically erased if they have gone seven years without a new conviction following a any misdemeanor conviction or 10 years without a new conviction following class D, or E felony conviction or unclassified felony with a prison term of five years or less. The law excludes people convicted of C, B, and A felonies, and felony gun convictions, altogether. This means there are two big groups of people left unprotected by Clean Slate’s anti-discrimination protections: those in limbo, who are waiting seven or 10 years for their record erasure; and those living with certain convictions who are excluded from Clean Slate altogether, who would only be eligible for record erasure if they succeed in the lengthy and difficult pardon process.
The law’s waiting period is harsh, given that the first years after incarceration are some of the most critical for people returning home. The stability of a job, housing, and other basic necessities is often the difference between someone being able to survive on the outside and successfully reenter society, or not. This is literally life or death. In Connecticut, within one year of leaving prison, formerly incarcerated people die at much higher rates than their peers, and the leading causes of death among formerly incarcerated people in that first year – overdose, homicide, and suicide – show how vulnerable their circumstances are. As even the state itself wrote, these are “horrifically high death rates compared to those found among the general population of this age,” and there were serious racial disparities among them, with Black formerly incarcerated people more likely to be the victims of homicide and white formerly incarcerated people more likely to die from overdoses.
Clean Slate’s exclusions also mean it isn’t the vehicle for justice that it could have been. Racial disparities in felony convictions, which are created by systemic racism in arrests, prosecutions, and sentencing, mean the groups of people whom Clean Slate left behind are disproportionately Black. The bill’s exclusions based on certain types of record also rely on stereotypes and misinformation. For instance, a study of the U.S.’s largest employer, the U.S. military, found that enlistees with felony records were more likely to be promoted to sergeant. Providing people with a chance at opportunity and hope builds healthy communities – locking people into a permanent underclass by preventing them to reentering society perpetuates harm, which makes us all less safe.
Connecticut’s existing public employment anti-discrimination law partially closes some of these loopholes. That law does not require a waiting period for someone to be eligible, and it includes everyone regardless of conviction, with the caveat that employers are allowed to turn someone down from a job if their record of arrest or conviction is directly related to the position. This means that, when it comes to public jobs (with the state), Connecticut’s existing employment anti-discrimination law helps protect some of the groups of people left temporarily or permanently out of Clean Slate’s protections.
But that law also leaves a huge swath of people behind: it doesn’t apply to private employers, meaning many job opportunities could still be closed to people left permanently or temporarily behind by Clean Slate. Some private employers have done the right thing and continue to do so by hiring people living with a record and treating them fairly, without exploiting those employees’ desperation for work. But when a private employer in Connecticut refuses to hire someone because of their record or tries to take advantage of them because of that record, workers have little legal recourse. As of December, more than 1.3 million jobs in Connecticut were in the private sector, and in some of the state’s fastest growing industries, people with a record are legally barred from licensure, even if their arrest or conviction had nothing to do with those jobs.
People living with a record are people, with talents, aspirations, children, and families. They are skilled artists, writers, therapists, barbers, hairdressers, caretakers, and more. When someone has earned the right to be part of society after arrest or conviction, they should have the right to support themselves and their loved ones, just like everyone else. When the state chooses not to let people fully reenter society after they have earned that right, it is endangering people’s lives – and because of systemic racism in who has been excluded from full reentry, that is a racist choice that disproportionately endangers Black and Latinx people’s lives.
This year, the Labor and Public Employees Committee has introduced a bill that would prevent employment discrimination on the basis of a record, full stop. Connecticut has started down the right roads with Clean Slate and its law preventing this discrimination in the public sector, and it’s time for our state to include the people both of those laws leave behind.