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Legislature made good on criminal-justice reform promises

Among the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement that swept the country in 2020 with demonstrations that ranged from massive in major cities to modest but inspired in much of small-town America, was the need for criminal-justice reform.

In Connecticut, Democrats in particular made such reforms a key part of their party’s platform in the 2020 election. Voters responded by giving Democrats strong majorities in the state House and Senate.

To a large extent, the majority party delivered.

This is not to say we fully embrace all of the reforms. In some cases, the pendulum swung back too far. But on balance, the reforms moved in the direction of improving a system that has disproportionately incarcerated people of color, subjected them to harsher punishment and given them less chance of rebuilding their lives after completing their debts to society.

The biggest change is the “Clean Slate” law recently signed by Gov. Ned Lamont. Currently, an individual can apply to get his or her criminal record erased by applying, after a number of years of noncriminal behavior, to the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

With the new law, individuals will be eligible for automatic erasure seven years after the date of a conviction for a misdemeanor or 10 years after the date of a conviction for certain Class D or E felonies or unclassified felonies with prison terms of five years or less.

Criminal records are a major obstacle to employment and to career advancement. Individuals who have proved they will live within the law for a number of years should be freed from the ball and chain of their past misconduct.

In signing the law, however, Lamont pointed to some concerns that the legislature should consider addressing in the 2022 session. We agree.

Under the law as passed, erased records will be unavailable both to criminal justice agencies considering whether to issue a gun permit and to the Judicial Branch in the event the individual is someday back in court. The records should remain available to those agencies in such cases.

Lamont also wants a review of the felonies that would fall under the auto-erasure law and asks the legislature to exclude any that involve violence or threat of violence. We join the governor in recommending such further review.

A welcomed change is amending the drug-free zone law, which subjected a defendant to greater penalties for drug offenses within 1,500 feet of schools, day care centers, and public housing. This meant these zones essentially blanketed cities, subjecting residents in them to greater penalties than those that faced residents in suburbia.

The change reduces the zones to 200 feet, a more sensible standard if the goal is to target illicit drug activity near these facilities.

Following the recommendations of a task force appointed by the state Supreme Court, the legislature also adopted some modest reforms to increase the chances of a defendant being tried before a jury of his or her peers.

Under the changes, jury duty for state cases will, going forward, be open to noncitizens. Also, those with felony records will not be automatically prohibited from jury service, but instead subject to the selection process, where bias can be probed. Felons are now banned from serving on a jury within seven years of their conviction.

And juror compensation is being increased in hopes that fewer lower-income prospective jurors will be forced out by financial hardships.

In another change, the families and friends of inmates will no longer be assessed excessive costs for phone calls, currently about $5 for every 15 minutes, but instead prison calls will be free. The primary argument in favor of the change is that frequent family contact can encourage better prisoner behavior and boost the chance of successful reentry into society upon release from prison.

Again, the intent is good, but the scope of the change is questionable. Inmates in good standing get up to 90 minutes of calls a day — a maximum of six calls limited to 15 minutes each. It is sensible to provide some of that phone access free; but all of it? The legislature might take another look next session.

Taken collectively, these changes aim to provide fairer juries at the front end of the criminal-justice process and reduce recidivism at the back end. Details and differences aside, those are laudable goals.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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