Last week, Smart Justice testified for the first time at the Connecticut General Assembly. With Smart Justice volunteer leaders in the room cheering us on, I and Sandy LoMonico testified before the legislature’s Housing Committee about the need to stop discrimination against people who are living with a criminal record.
As I told the legislators in that hearing room, I’ve often heard people say “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” What people fail to realize is that “the time” never really ends. Because of the barriers placed on people who are living with a criminal record, a fresh start can seem impossible, no matter what “the crime” was, or how long ago it happened. When people reentering society after incarceration face a lifetime of punishment and don’t have a chance at getting on the right path, it makes our state less just, equal, and safe. Luckily, there is a way forward: this year, Connecticut has a chance to pass a statewide law to prevent discrimination against people living with a criminal record in things like housing, employment, and insurance.
Here is the truth I delivered to the Housing Committee about the need for this kind of anti-discrimination law:
“All people in Connecticut have paid the price of mass incarceration, yet we can’t afford the cost. Formerly incarcerated people living with a criminal record pay the price daily as we struggle to find stable housing, yet we’re hindered by discrimination. That struggle applies to our families as well. A lot of us are trying to reunite with our families. Having a safe, stable place to live is a launching pad for that reunification.
As a person living with a criminal record, when I talked about moving to the city of Hartford, I immediately experienced anxiety. Despite the success I have experienced in the 12 years since being released from prison, I dreaded having to explain my criminal record again to a potential landlord. This year, when searching for housing, I explained my record to a potential landlord. As soon as I revealed that part of my past, the landlord responded by asking me to provide additional documents that were impossible for me to obtain, and that home’s door was closed to me.
My experience with housing has pretty much been a mirror of my experience with employment. I have had periods of stability, and periods of uncertainty, with the uncertainty outweighing the stability due to the emotional toll.
My experience is not unique. In my role as a field organizer, I receive calls that are literally cries for help from people living with a criminal record and people on community supervision who are being denied access to housing. People explain to me their frustrations, and some of these people are just starting their reentry process. I just received one of these calls yesterday, from a father who is currently living in a halfway house and can’t reconnect with his children because he doesn’t have a safe, stable place for them to visit him.
Racial disparities in Connecticut’s criminal justice system are also reflected later when people returning home from incarceration reenter the community. With Black and Latino men disproportionately incarcerated, we are disproportionately rejected when we return to our communities and seek to build a life worth living.
I have shared my personal experience with you today to emphasize the harm from the collateral consequences of living with a criminal record, but I am not alone. Tens of thousands of Connecticut residents are struggling with this discrimination every day. Because of the isolation and stigma we face, it sometimes feels like we are still serving time, just in a community-based prison.
I’ve heard people say “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” How does that time mean anything when you can still face perpetual punishment after you’ve completed it?
Every person living with a criminal record, who has earned the chance to be part of society, should have an equal opportunity to build a successful and fulfilling life. This includes people who have been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony, people who have been convicted of a violent or non-violent offense, people who are just beginning their reentry process, and people who have been in society for decades. The ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice campaign therefore urges the committee to consider strengthening each of these bills to prevent discrimination against all people living with a criminal record in areas like housing, employment, and insurance.
We urge the legislature to support and strengthen these bills to ensure our communities are no longer harmed by the collateral consequences of incarceration. Thank you.”