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CT ‘clean slate law’ full implementation faces another delay

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CT ‘clean slate law’ full implementation faces another delay

Mar 26, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Jaden Edison
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Gov. Ned Lamont and Tammy King erase numbers on a chalkboard, a symbolic gesture to wiping the slate clean in light of Connecticut's "clean slate" law taking full effect. CREDIT: MARK PAZNIOKAS / CT MIRROR
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Gov. Ned Lamont and Tammy King erase numbers on a chalkboard, a symbolic gesture to wiping the slate clean in light of Connecticut's "clean slate" law taking full effect. CREDIT: MARK PAZNIOKAS / CT MIRROR

Just three months after announcing plans for full implementation of a 2021 law to erase misdemeanors and certain low-level felonies for more than 80,000 people near the start of this year, Connecticut officials have fallen well short of their promise, with only about 13,600 residents having had their records cleared so far.

A celebratory gathering in December was intended to mark the long-anticipated conclusion to delays with Connecticut’s “clean slate” initiative, the automatic erasure of tens of thousands of low-level criminal records for a majority of Black and Latino residents negatively affected by laws passed during the so-called war on drugs. 

Connecticut’s erasure system was going to identify more than 178,000 offenses from more than 80,000 people, officials said, and the “vast majority” of expungements would happen by the end of January 2024. 

But the Lamont administration recently notified clean slate advocates that only roughly 13,600 people have had their records cleared, which accounts for about 33,000 charges. Around 30,000 of the expunged offenses have been for misdemeanors, while approximately 3,000 are for low-level felonies. 

[Here’s what to know about CT’s ‘clean slate’ law, which erases some criminal records]

Aging data systems and inaccurate data are the reasons for the most recent delay, according to the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, one of the agencies responsible for clean slate’s rollout.

The state now expects that another 65,000 people will have their convictions erased in the coming weeks, with a goal of erasing all eligible records dating back to the year 2000 within the next 12 months.

The situation has caused confusion among clean slate advocates, given that much of the information about the delay did not come until they actively sought out answers from officials about the status of implementation — and that the information came just months after the celebratory press conference.

“They knew at the press conference that clean slate would definitely benefit the majority of Black and brown people who experience incarceration because those are harsher punishments that we get as Black and brown people,” said Rodney Moore, who works with the Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut’s criminal legal reform team, or CONECT, a coalition of religious institutions behind the advocacy for clean slate. 

“That was the excuse the first time — that there was a data issue, and we’re having issues with IT. And we’ve got to get these things right. And it was going to be taken care of,” Moore said. “But now we’re back at it again.”

Rick Green, a spokesperson for DESPP, said that state officials “underestimated” the extent of the problems with the data system when the full rollout was announced in December. But under the direction of new Commissioner Ronnell Higgins, Green said, the agency is committed to providing more frequent updates about implementation. 

“I think the advocates are in a position where they have every right to be wanting to get some clear answers here. This is a pretty important thing,” Green said. “We’re talking about convictions that have stayed on somebody’s record for a long time, and we have an obligation to move quickly and fairly on this.”

Signed into law in 2021, clean slate sets out to automatically erase the criminal records of people seven years after the date of their conviction for a misdemeanor or 10 years after the date of their conviction for certain low-level felonies, depending on the offense, if they had not been convicted of other crimes.

The goal of the initiative is to leverage information technology system capabilities to lower barriers to education, employment and housing for people who have completed their sentences.

A month before scheduled implementation in January 2023, however, the Lamont administration announced that erasures for tens of thousands of people who would likely benefit from the clean slate initiative wouldn’t happen until the second half of the year

Officials attributed the holdup to outdated technology and outstanding legal and policy questions. In the interim, the administration touted the state’s success with the erasure of cannabis-related misdemeanors for roughly 44,000 people under a cannabis legalization law. 

That was later followed by the Connecticut legislature’s passage of a bill making technical and clarifying changes to the original clean slate measure aimed at addressing the impediment.

After $8 million in upgrades to information technology, the state announced in December that the delay was over. More than 80,000 people would have their records expunged at the beginning of 2024, officials told a packed room at Community Baptist Church in New Haven.

In mid-February, however, members of CONECT said they received an email from the Lamont administration with a notice that the project was behind schedule due to data concerns. And earlier this month, both parties met in person to discuss the delay.

At least one concern expressed by state officials during the meeting, according to Phil Kent, a civil attorney who works with CONECT’s criminal legal reform team, was that the state did not want to have somebody whose record was improperly cleared go out and commit a crime. The law requires an individual to live crime-free for seven to 10 years before they qualify for erasure. Other states with clean slate laws have also shown low recidivism rates for beneficiaries of record expungement.

There is a different concern among the advocates: of the roughly 13,600 people who have benefited from erasure, accounting for about 33,000 charges, the overwhelming majority are people with misdemeanors and not felonies.

It is notable considering that Black people in Connecticut make up a higher share of people with felony convictions than their racial counterparts, according to the Paper Prisons Initiative, a criminal justice research organization, and because Lamont once proposed his own version of clean slate that would have applied only to nonviolent misdemeanors and indicated that he was wary of any measure more ambitious than his own. 

Green, of DESPP, said all stakeholders are committed to full implementation, both for people with eligible misdemeanors and felonies, provided the data is “fair and accurate.” 

He attributed the disparity in the expunged misdemeanors and felonies to the agency discovering what it calls “false positives,” or people in the system who appear eligible for clean slate erasure but who, after closer examination, have another offense on their record, making them ineligible. 

“They’ve had to carefully go through those records to make sure that the people that they are erasing are people who are eligible for erasure,” Green said. “It’s just way more time-consuming than had been originally anticipated.” 

The agency said it plans to provide more frequent updates through both the official clean slate website and the DESPP website moving forward. “We’re going to stay on top of it. I think there will be more transparency,” Green added. 

But some clean slate advocates say three years seems like a long enough time to have sorted out problems with the data. 

As an act of protest, CONECT is holding an event at the State Capitol on Wednesday, where organization leaders plan to wash the feet of 12 people affected by the delay, a symbolic nod to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and a gesture of forgiveness during Holy Week. 

Their message is clear: they want people affected by the criminal legal system to have a fair shot at attaining an education, employment and housing, just as the state promised them in 2021. 

“Anyone who’s kind of paying attention to this can see over time the inconsistencies between what the administration has said is going to happen and what is actually happening,” Kent said. “That just ends up making it extremely difficult for people in the community to really be in a place where they can feel confident that clean slate is going to work and feel confident that if they are eligible, that they will ultimately get their record cleared.”