Criminal justice discussions to watch for during the 2024 legislature
Connecticut lawmakers ended the 2023 legislative session having passed hotly contested bills on parole eligibility, police interrogation and prosecutorial accountability.
A law advanced last year largely contributed to residents with misdemeanors and low-level felonies beginning to see their criminal records erased at the start of this year. The session from January to June also featured the first comprehensive update of the state’s gun laws in a decade.
But 2024 poses significant challenges to any substantial criminal justice reforms this time around.
Time is more limited: lawmakers have 13 weeks to introduce, discuss, debate and approve legislation. The legislature is also keen on compromise and incremental progress, coupled with the state’s budgetary restraints. And it’s an election year, which could reduce the odds that officials will support bills they see as controversial.
In interviews with the two chairs of the Judiciary Committee, the delegation overseeing everything from prisons and courts to criminal law and civil penalties, they spoke at length with The Connecticut Mirror about some of the challenges presented by a short legislative session and policy discussions that could resurface.
“It’s harder to tackle very big topics or ideas,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport.
“It’s less about ‘this is the priority,’” added Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. “It’s about, ‘How can we do the most for people given the list that’s still in front of us?’”
There are growing discussions about amending the Connecticut Constitution to create a bail system centered on risk and not financial means. It remains to be seen how the state will address concerns about prison staffing and the provision of adequate rehabilitation opportunities for incarcerated people. There’s a controversial $67 million proposal to reopen the site of a former prison-like facility for children. There are privacy concerns about artificial intelligence. Conversations about the decriminalization of psilocybin, a psychedelic drug, could also continue.
The legislative session started Feb. 7 and runs through May 8. Here are some of the major discussions about criminal justice that could occur.
During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers introduced a proposal that, if successful, would have ignited a yearslong process to amend the Connecticut Constitution to correct what they see as two overarching problems: the inability to detain certain people accused of violent crimes and the ability to keep poor people incarcerated who aren’t a risk but can’t afford to bail out before their trial.
The proposal advanced out of two committees but did not reach the House floor for a debate. Top lawmakers stated that there was a need for more education on the subject matter.
Neither Winfield or Stafstrom, the latter of whom authored the proposal, envision making significant headway on bail this session due to the need for education and the limited time to pass a measure that would realistically make it through the legislature. Stafstrom said there is still a chance, however, that lawmakers will propose a bill similar to last year’s in hopes of pushing the conversation forward.
“Bail reform in Connecticut is coming,” Stafstrom said. “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”
Compassionate parole and commutations
Lawmakers, with bipartisan support, introduced a bill last year that would have allowed a panel under the Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant compassionate release during a major disaster or an emergency declaration by the president of the United States, covering any part of the state, or an emergency declaration issued by the governor.
It sought to clear up disagreements during the COVID-19 pandemic about whether the board had broader authority to release people at serious risk of contracting the virus and/or dying in prison.
Senate Republicans blocked the bill’s passage by filing dozens of amendments and arguing that House lawmakers did not properly consult them on parts addressing GOP concerns about commutations.
The measure would have granted lawmakers more oversight over the Board of Pardons and Paroles and set parameters around when victims of crime are notified about people seeking commutations. Notifications had been going out upon an application, even in cases where an individual was deemed ineligible and denied a hearing.
Stafstrom said there could be discussions about compassionate parole, but neither he nor Winfield expressed interest in revisiting the politicized discussions about commutations this session, which recently resumed after Lamont issued a pause last year.
“The legislature was unable to come up with a policy that it agreed upon,” Winfield said. “If somebody puts forward a policy, we’ll look at it and make a determination.”
Connecticut Juvenile Training School
A law that was passed last year required the Judicial Branch to review and update plans for securely accommodating children under the age of 18 who have been arrested and detained before sentencing or disposition. These individuals are currently under the supervision of the Department of Correction.
In response, the Judicial Branch presented a $67 million plan that would reopen the site of what was formerly known as the Connecticut Juvenile Training School to accommodate the children. The facility in Middletown was a heavily scrutinized prison-like facility that closed in 2018 after years of complaints and an investigation into the abuse and neglect of the children housed there.
Lawmakers could decide to introduce a bill this session to fund studies of a renovation, which could last roughly 18 to 24 months and cost up to $1 million, according to the proposal.
“I do think it is a budgetary conversation more than a Judiciary Committee conversation, and I do think we all have to be aware of why people have the feelings they have about the space,” said Winfield, who serves on the Appropriations Committee. “And at the end of the day, even though I don’t like the fact of that space being the place, if we could actually transform that space into what it should be, as opposed to not having space, that’s what we should do.”
There are other lawmakers and advocates who pushed for the facility’s closure who will likely need a more convincing argument to support the proposal.
“It would take a lot for me to get to a position to think it would be a good idea to reopen that facility in any format,” Stafstrom said.
Over the last several months, correctional unions have raised concerns about an increase in staff assaults and a lack of adequate staffing.
Incarcerated people have spoken up about an urgent need for more rehabilitation programming and compliance with a law that increased the number of mandated hours they can spend outside of their cells, limited the use of solitary confinement and established independent oversight of the DOC.
Winfield, who helps oversee the correctional budget for the Appropriations Committee, said he would review whatever proposals staff bring forth. But he said he would not be in favor of creating a more punitive prison environment.
Winfield has also indicated that he would like the DOC to expand initiatives like the T.R.U.E. unit at Cheshire, a mentorship program established during the Gov. Dannel P. Malloy administration that drew national applause for its transformative approach to reform. The DOC has said it needs more funding to do so.
Meanwhile, the committee responsible for helping appoint the person who will serve in a watchdog role over the DOC has publicly raised concerns about what it feels was insufficient funding allocated for the office of the ombudsperson ($800,000 over FY24 and FY25).
But it seems unlikely that the office will receive a significant boost in funding, according to Winfield and Stafstrom.
“And that’s not a matter of whether people want to give them money or not,” Winfield said.
“We are living within the fiscal constraints of the guardrails we put in place a few years ago, and funding remains a challenge,” Stafstrom added.
And, as mandated by a law passed last session, the DOC was required by Jan. 1 to solicit bids to obtain body scanning machines that would be used to conduct full-body X-ray screenings on people in prison — similar to the technology used in airports. Lawmakers passed the bill in response to concerns about routine strip searches of incarcerated people.
The DOC was also required to submit a report to the legislature by Feb. 1 on the estimated costs of implementing the technology, the number of machines required, information concerning potential health risks with the technology, and the capability of the machines to replace strip searches. The conversations are likely to continue this session.
Following the highly anticipated release of an investigation last week that found “significant failures” by the Connecticut State Police to abide by the state’s racial profiling law, lawmakers are expected to consider legislation in response.
According to the report, the State Police’s neglect of the Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act included failing to respond effectively to an initial investigation in 2018 that found that four troopers had falsified ticketing data, failing to address information that pointed to broader problems with the data and not properly supervising and training troopers on data entry.
It also found that at least six active troopers (including one trooper already under criminal investigation for alleged falsification) and one active constable may have intentionally falsified data. The report concluded that internal affairs should conduct investigations into the officers.
Lamont said he plans to submit a bill to the legislature that would create legal consequences for officers who intentionally falsify data.
Conversations are likely to continue about a bill that would turn certain motor vehicle violations — such as failing to have two working headlights or failure to renew a registration — into secondary violations and prohibit police from stopping a vehicle only to enforce one of these offenses. A similar bill advanced out of the Senate with bipartisan support last year but did not receive a vote in the House.
This comes after the legislature passed a measure requiring police to verbally communicate to drivers the purpose of a stop before it is completed.
Out of more than 270,000 traffic stops conducted in 2021, Black drivers in Connecticut comprised 19%, despite making up roughly 13% of the state population, a disparity that did not exist for white and Hispanic drivers. Underreporting by the State Police may also be downplaying the extent of the disparities.
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