State to debate plan to ease housing rules for convicts

Hartford - Each month in Connecticut, more than 1,500 convicts are released from state prisons and, because of their criminal records, face more hard time trying to get housing and jobs. About 79 percent of them are expected to be rearrested within five years, according to a Correction Department study released earlier this year.

Some state officials believe that recidivism rate would be lower if the state enacted a law making it easier for convicts to get homes and jobs, but others are adamantly opposed to giving criminals special rights.

The Connecticut Sentencing Commission will hold a public hearing on such a law Thursday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. The proposal is one of several the panel is considering recommending to lawmakers for next year's legislative session.

"If you make it virtually impossible for someone to get a job, then you make it a virtual certainty that they're going to commit more crimes," said Michael Lawlor, state undersecretary for criminal justice policy and sentencing commission vice chairman. "If you don't have a place to live, it makes it more likely."

The proposed law would allow judges and the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to issue "certificates of rehabilitation" to convicts who don't pose any public danger. It would require public housing authorities, employers and state licensing agencies to consider those certificates while evaluating job and housing applicants, but it would not mandate that their applications be approved.

A similar bill with stronger mandates died in this year's session after housing officials worried about being forced to accept convicts.

"What is the concern? The safety of the residents and staff, especially the seniors and people with disabilities," said Scott Bertrand, executive director of the Enfield Housing Authority.

Bertrand said housing officials already consider criminal backgrounds, so he wasn't sure why a new law is needed.

The Connecticut Business & Industry Association, which represents 10,000 state businesses, doesn't oppose such legislation. In fact, the group has been trying to get companies to hire ex-cons, said Peter Gioia, vice president and an economist with the CBIA.

"We realize that a lot of these people are coming out (of prison) and a key way to keep them from going back is to get them a job - at least people who are nonviolent and non-sex offenders," he said.

Virginia Downing, 62, of New Haven said she has had trouble finding affordable housing and a full-time job since a 1998 felony drug possession conviction that sent her to prison for six months.

She has worked part-time as a crossing guard for New Haven schools the past six years. She said she got certified as a nurse's aide in 2006, but her record kept her from getting a job in that profession.

"I have not had any criminal involvement in 14 years," she told a legislative committee earlier this year. "It is not reasonable that I should continue to be burdened by collateral consequences."

Many states in recent years have enacted policies to restore civil rights and expanded access to public benefits for convicts, according to a study released this year by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that does research and advocacy on criminal justice issues.

Last year, legislatures in at least 29 states adopted policies that may contribute to prison population decreases and reduce the consequences of convictions, the study said.

An estimated 13 million Americans have felony convictions that can bar them from jobs, public benefits, voting and other activities, according to The Sentencing Project.

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