If you’re paying attention to Connecticut’s legislative session, you’ve probably heard the term “Clean Slate.” By joining the conversation about Clean Slate, Connecticut is entering a national movement – Utah, California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have passed Clean Slate laws. The mechanics of those laws are different from state to state. But Clean Slate does have one unifying principle: the idea that every person living with a criminal record who has earned the chance to be in society deserves a fair chance at supporting themselves and their families. Fundamentally, Clean Slate is about providing a light at the end of the tunnel for people who are dealing with the collateral consequences of a record – inability to find housing, employment, education, or even insurance or financial products, based solely on a scarlet letter from their past.
So what are we talking about when we talk about Clean Slate? For the ACLU of Connecticut, “Clean Slate” is automatic record erasure after a defined period of time, for anyone living with a criminal record, with anti-discrimination protections.
Automatic record erasure
“Erasing” a record means the record is removed from criminal record electronic databases and will not show up if, for instance, a landlord or employer conducts a background check. It means a person can legally say that they have no criminal record.
Critically, erasing a record through Clean Slate is also automatic. Unlike a pardon, under Clean Slate, people who are living with a record do not need to apply to be eligible; do not need to jump through complicated, lengthy, or costly hoops to access it; and are eligible based solely on the amount of time they have gone without a new conviction. Making Clean Slate automatic is the state making a promise: earn your chance to be part of society, show that you can reenter without a new conviction, and the state will guarantee that someday, you will live record-free.
After a defined period of time
Under Clean Slate, people are eligible to have their record erased after they have gone a certain amount of time without a new conviction. This means people would be eligible for Clean Slate after they have already shown they can successfully reenter society. Research has shown, after all, that people who go seven years without a new offense are no more likely to reoffend than someone without a criminal record.
The ACLU of Connecticut believes people should be able to live with a Clean Slate as soon as they have earned the chance to reenter society, not after years of waiting. Someone reentering society has already paid their debt to society and should not be forced to keep repaying it. Until the legislative conversation about Clean Slate catches up to that principle, however, we will push for the state to at least define the amount of time necessary for Clean Slate eligibility, so the rules are clear and not arbitrary.
For anyone living with a record
Ninety-five percent of people who are incarcerated in the U.S. will return to society. Once someone has finished their sentence and earned their chance to reenter society, we should be setting them up for success, no matter what crime they were arrested for or convicted of.
Unfortunately, people have a lot of misconceptions about the differences between felonies and misdemeanors and about what constitutes a violent offense. This can lead to states attempting to exclude people from Clean Slate based solely on the type of offense on their record, without even considering how old the record was or how long they have gone without another conviction.
In reality, people who have been convicted of a felony or a violent crime can turn their lives around and be productive members of our communities, especially if they can get the right kind of help. 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 public safety – locking people into a permanent underclass by preventing them to reentering society perpetuates harm and makes us all less safe.
Racial disparities in felony convictions should also make anyone think twice before trying to limit second chances solely to people with misdemeanors. A nationwide study conducted in 2017 found that overall, eight percent of people in the U.S. are living with a felony record. But among Black adult men, the rate is one in three. That same study estimated that overall, between six and eight percent of Connecticut residents are living with a felony conviction – but among Black adult men, the rate was between 25 and 31 percent. Racial disparities in felony convictions reflect racism in arrests, charging, and sentencing. Indeed, excluding people with felony convictions from participating in society has traditionally been used to further racism.. After the Civil War, Florida banned people with felony records from voting in an attempt to prevent Black voters from gaining power.
With anti-discrimination protections
For Clean Slate to be more than an empty promise, it must include a way to hold people accountable if they discriminate against someone based on their criminal history. We live in a digital age. Even if someone’s record is erased, there is a chance that a potential landlord, employer, or another gatekeeper could learn about their criminal history outside of a background check. Without anti-discrimination protections, word of mouth or a Google search of old news stories could put someone in just as precarious a position as if their record had never been erased.
A strong Clean Slate law is one that closes this potential loophole by prohibiting discrimination against people based on their history of arrest or conviction in things like housing, employment, education, insurance, credit, and public programs. In Connecticut, this would mean giving people a pathway to file a claim with CHRO (Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities) if they face discrimination after their record has been erased.
In the Connecticut General Assembly’s discussions about Clean Slate, all four of these components – automatic record erasure, after a defined period of time, for all people living with a record, with anti-discrimination protections – are likely to be up for debate. The ACLU of Connecticut will be fighting for the strongest Clean Slate possible, so more people and their families are able to have a fair chance at thriving.