When Luis was a child, he was fascinated with flight and airplanes. So when he was 18 years old, he met with an Air Force recruitment officer, seeking to join up. Luis received excellent scores on the Armed Services aptitude tests, but there was a problem. Luis was serving a two-year sentence of probation for a marijuana possession conviction. The recruitment officer called Luis’s probation officer to see if it was possible for Luis to leave the state, something he would have to do in the Air Force.

Luis remembers how the recruitment officer’s face sank as he spoke with the probation officer. The recruitment officer hung up the phone, turned to Luis, and said that the probation officer had told him, “He can’t serve this country because he’s a criminal now, and he will be for the rest of his life.”

That was in 1988. Three decades later, Luis is still fighting discrimination due to his record. He attended Eastern Connecticut State University, but after being injured in a car accident, he began to struggle with substance use leading to further involvement with the criminal legal system.

As Luis strove to rebuild his life, he learned to avoid jobs where background checks would eliminate his chances to work. A hotel in Groton hired him as an assistant kitchen manager, then fired him after three weeks because it was against company policy to employ people with a criminal record, yet told him that he was great worker. A trucking company in Rocky Hill hired him as a driver and mover for six weeks, then called him into the main office and told him that his background was a liability for the company. Luis remembers a woman in human resources apologizing and being nearly in tears over having to let him go. Luis had been upfront with both employers about his record, yet despite his honesty and efforts to establish himself as an excellent employee, both employers fired him because of his record. 

Luis is not alone in facing this kind of discrimination. And now, as a Smart Justice leader, he is pushing for Connecticut to adopt policies to prevent him and others from experiencing these kinds of barriers.

Connecticut recently joined a national conversation about the obstacles that a person faces in obtaining employment, housing, education, and credit and other financial products when dealing with the lifelong consequences of criminal record – consequences that persist even after a person has completed their sentence and paid their debt to society.

This March, Smart Justice leaders, volunteers, and supporters marched to Connecticut’s Legislative Office Building to attend a packed public hearing regarding two “Clean Slate” bills. One, Senate Bill 403, would have automatically erased a person’s criminal record after a defined period of time without a new conviction, meaning that if a landlord or employer conducted a background check, a person could legally say they have no criminal record. Last year, Connecticut’s legislature considered a bill to prevent discrimination on the basis of someone’s record in in employment, housing, public education and accommodations, insurance, credit transactions, government programs and services, and economic development programs.

The introduction of these bills reflects a growing consensus among Connecticut voters that the collateral consequences of a record shouldn’t last a lifetime: 85 percent of Connecticut voters, including 91 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Independents, and 72 percent of Republicans, say that people who have been convicted of a crime should have a fair shot at getting their lives on track without having their prison sentence held against them.

As Smart Justice leader Terri Ricks says, policies to eliminate barriers for people living with a record are about “giving people who do their time and become productive citizens a real chance at a different life for them and their families to thrive. It’s about survival, about giving people a second chance at life.”

Those policies were important before the outbreak of COVID-19, and they are even more important now. In the wake of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to remove barriers to employment, housing, and education for people living with a record, so that people who have served their sentences aren’t left behind as society begins to reopen and as policymakers consider plans to help people survive.

Like the rest of the nation, Connecticut has been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we must acknowledge the historical, systemic racist and discriminatory policies that have contributed to this crisis. July data from the Connecticut Department of Public Health shows that, after adjusting for age, Black and Latinx Connecticut residents are more than three times more likely to have tested positive for COVID-19 than white people. Black Connecticut residents are more than two and a half times more likely to have died from COVID-19, and Latinx Connecticut residents are one and a half times more likely. Everyone should have the opportunity to live healthy lives, and one of the most troubling aspects of COVID-19 is how it has exacerbated deep-rooted inequities and made clear the pervasive systemic racism that undermines health in communities of color.

Mass incarceration is part of this problem. Long before the outbreak of COVID-19, mass incarceration had already undermined public health, especially in Black and Latinx communities -- because of systemic racism in policing, the penal code, and in the broader criminal legal system, Connecticut’s prison population is 70 percent Black and Latinx in a state that is approximately 80 percent white.

At the beginning of the pandemic, if Connecticut’s Department of Corrections were a town, it would have had the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the state. Incarcerated people, their loved ones, and advocates including Smart Justice continue to call for Connecticut to release people to protect them from COVID-19. The state still has not issued a plan for widespread releases, and it still must.

The consequences of COVID-19 also extend, however, to people who are living with a record in society. People who are bearing the lifelong collateral consequences of a criminal record – an estimated one in three American adults – were already struggling before COVID-19. The lifelong collateral consequences of a criminal record make finding a job, getting an apartment, going back to school, obtaining insurance and financial products, and securing other basic rights exceedingly difficult. People impacted by the criminal legal system already have higher rates of chronic conditions than the general public and often have difficulty finding a health care provider. The Council on the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Record found that Connecticut has chosen to establish more than 500 legal and policy barriers that people with criminal records face when trying to support themselves and their families.

During the pandemic, these collateral consequences of a criminal record have the potential to become even worse.

For example, because of systemic barriers, nationwide, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people before COVID-19 was 27 percent at a time when the overall unemployment rate was 5.2 percent. With the most recent estimates from the state placing Connecticut’s unemployment rate at 10.2 percent, people with criminal records will potentially be at an even greater disadvantage, no matter what their qualifications. Because of systemic racism, people who are living with a record are more likely to be living in Black and Latinx communities that are grappling with some of the highest infection rates in the state, communities that experience disproportionate rates of unemployment, housing insecurity, and wealth gaps because of that same systemic racism.

More explicitly, President Trump signed the CARES Act into law last March, Congress authorized $350 billion in loans and grants to be issued by the Small Business Administration but prohibited small business owners with criminal records from accessing them. People who are living with a criminal record and have established their own small businesses, often because they could not find employment with others, are small business owners like everyone else, yet they were at risk of being denied relief during the pandemic solely because of their past. It was only after public pressure, including two lawsuits, that Congress removed that discriminatory restriction.

It should surprise no one that the systemic barriers that make finding employment exceedingly difficult for people with records also exist in housing, and are also at risk of getting worse during COVID-19. In the United States, formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 time more likely to be homeless than the general public, and in Connecticut nearly half the people entering homeless shelters in the past three years have spent time in a prison or jail at some point in their life. Housing instability is a commonly recognized challenge that people with records face, and research shows that if a person has stable housing, they are less likely to commit a new crime and become caught in the revolving door between the streets or shelters and jails.

In the same way that Luis D. learned to avoid applying for jobs with background checks, he was forced to steer clear of apartments that required background checks or tried to stay with friends and family. After completing a treatment program in 2019, Luis was able to stay at an independent living facility in Middletown for one year, but had to move out after the year was up – just as COVID-19 was arriving in the U.S. Luis was working as a cashier for a national retailer but only working between 20 and 30 hours a week. Fortunately, he was able to rent a room in a boarding house after a coworker vouched for him to the landlord, otherwise Luis would have had to sleep in his car.

For people living with a record who were already struggling to find a safe and stable place to live, the COVID-19 pandemic has made that challenge even more extreme. The common places to find shelter and a bathroom – libraries, gyms, fast food restaurants – were closed, and homeless shelters did not have the capacity to allow for physical distancing. While Connecticut took steps to relocate people to hotels and other arrangements, these are only temporary solutions. And while Connecticut provided some funding for people who were being released from incarceration during the pandemic to have safe shelter, it was not nearly enough to cover everyone’s needs, and did not apply to people living with a record who were struggling to find housing before the pandemic.

As Connecticut grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Lamont and members of the General Assembly now have a heightened responsibility to include and protect people who had already been forced by state policies to live on the fringes of our society. That includes creating policies to allow every person living with a criminal record an equal opportunity to build a successful, healthy, and fulfilling life.

Before COVID-19 put the 2020 regular legislative session on pause, Smart Justice leaders were meeting every day with their legislators to impart their knowledge and expertise about a system of collateral consequences that was holding them back by locking them into a permanent underclass. The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on another layer of systemic failure in Connecticut that has disproportionately impacted the same individuals and families who were already struggling from the collateral consequences of the criminal legal system. People can turn their lives around and become productive members of our communities, so we should be setting people up for success when they are trying to rebuild their lives, not compounding the structural barriers they face. That’s true during normal times, and it’s especially true during a pandemic, when our society is only as healthy as its most vulnerable member.

Meanwhile, during COVID-19 and for the past year, Luis D. has continued to work as a cashier for a retailer that did not shut down during the pandemic. As an essential worker, Luis received “hero pay” that added $2 an hour to his regular pay rate, an increase that will end in August. Luis has earned the trust and respect of management and regularly works at distressed stores around the state. Earlier this year, he was invited to apply for a management position. Luis has not applied, however, because of his concerns that his background will once again come to light.

“Am I going to be judged again, am I going to be humiliated again?” he said. “I’m reliable, I’m honest, I do my job with enthusiasm, and it shows in the work that I do. I don’t want some background check by people who don’t know me to bring up things I’m tired of explaining.”

As we all face the public health emergency of COVID-19, Connecticut must embrace policies and laws to ensure people like Luis, his fellow Smart Justice leaders, and thousands of others living with a record have opportunities to find housing and employment so that they can support themselves and survive.