Alma Rutgers: A bill about people, not prisons
It’s a thought-provoking message: “PEOPLE, Not Prisons.”
Displayed on blue T-shirts worn by Smart Justice activists, it reinforced testimony at a Feb. 26 public hearing held by the state legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee. The Smart Justice contingent was in Hartford to support H.B. 6921, An Act Concerning Discrimination Based on a Person’s Criminal History.
Smart Justice Connecticut, an initiative of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, was officially launched last July. It’s part of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, a nationwide effort to achieve a 50-percent reduction in the country’s jail and prison population and combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system. This effort to ultimately end mass incarceration is taking place in legislatures, courts, and through a variety of educational programs and re-entry initiatives.
This year, for the first time Smart Justice Connecticut is testifying before committees of the Connecticut General Assembly. Chief spokespersons include ACLU Criminal Justice Organizer Sandy LoMonico and Smart Justice Field Organizer Anderson Curtis.
In his written testimony, Curtis described the barriers formerly incarcerated people continually face.
“Despite the success I have experienced in the 12 years since I was released from prison, I dread having to explain my criminal record. As soon as I reveal my criminal history, I have experienced doors closing in housing and employment, and that experience does not dissipate with time.”
The Smart Justice model calls for the involvement of persons who’ve been personally impacted by the criminal justice system, with formerly incarcerated people such as Curtis holding leadership positions.
LoMonico left prison many years ago, the 20-year-old mother of a young daughter. She was homeless and had difficulty finding housing because of her criminal record.
“My status as a person living with a criminal record broke my spirit as I entered property management offices over, and over again, and was rejected from renting housing after being completely honest about my recent felony conviction as a young adult,” she said in testimony on a housing bill before the legislature’s Housing Committee.
She eventually found housing, and suspects her search may have been easier than for people of color.
“As a white woman, it is also important to me to note that issues of housing discrimination based on someone’s record of arrest or conviction disproportionately harm communities of color,” LoMonico testified. “I cannot know for sure, but I believe that some doors were more open to me, because of my whiteness, than they may have been for a woman of color in my situation.”
H.B. 6921 is designed to prevent discrimination in housing, employment, insurance, education, credit, and state government programs and accommodations based on a person’s criminal record.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. On any given day, there are about 2.2 million people in prison, and more than 70 million living with a criminal record. Ninety-five percent of those imprisoned eventually return to society, and when they do, they face innumerable barriers to successful re-entry.
“Public and private landlords, educational institutions, insurance companies, most state licensure boards, and other gatekeepers to society generally have the right to discriminate against prospective tenants, students, and policyholders because of our criminal record,” Curtis testified.
These barriers contribute to high rates of re-incarceration. There’s increasing evidence, however, that shifting the focus away from punishment and toward programs that help formerly incarcerated people with re-entry reduces re-incarceration rates, as well as reducing crime. Smart Justice shifts attention to issues of poverty, addiction, mental health, housing, employment, and education as significant contributing factors in criminal behavior.
Former Gov. Dannel Malloy’s well-known criminal justice initiatives began to move Connecticut in this progressive direction with positive results. Connecticut is now known as the “Second Chance State.”
In an interview last fall, LoMonico repeatedly pointed out that the criminal justice system impacts everyone, noting the astronomical costs of mass incarceration. A 2017 report found mass incarceration costs federal and state governments and American families $182 billion a year.
Connecticut now has the opportunity, with this proposed legislation, to continue to lead the nation in criminal justice reform, taking us in a more humane, equitable, and much less costly direction.
Ask your legislators to support H.B. 6921. It’s about people, not prisons.
Alma Rutgers served in Greenwich town government for 25 years. Her blog is at blog.ctnews.com/rutgers/