Lamont signs bill wiping out criminal convictions, but with an objection

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Gov. Ned Lamont signed into a law Thursday a controversial bill that wipes out the records of criminal convictions after 10 years, including some felonies — but his approval has strings attached.

The law is seen by supporters as a major step toward criminal justice reform, and by opponents as a violation of victims’ rights.

The governor delayed acting on the so-called clean slate bill, and formally asked for a fix, because he was concerned about a firearms provision, as reported last week by Hearst Connecticut Media. A person convicted of illegally possessing a firearm, a Class D felony, could have that record expunged after 10 years — then apply for a gun permit.

Lamont didn’t like that, especially because it didn’t make an exception for illegal possession at a school.

In a letter to lawmakers Thursday, Lamont said he is concerned “that more felonies were not excluded” from the legislation and that “the erased records will not be available to criminal justice agencies to consider in determining whether to issue a gun permit or to the Judicial Branch in the event the individual is someday back in court.”

Without offering any specifics, he added, “I call on the legislature to address these concerns.”

The bill maintains Connecticut as a national leader in criminal justice reform, Lamont said, and “addresses well-documented collateral consequences of a criminal conviction and lowers barriers for people seeking to move on with their life and past their involvement with the criminal justice system.”

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the chief sponsor of the bill, did not respond to a request seeking reaction to the signing and the request for the fix.

Starting in 2023, people convicted of most misdemeanors and class D and class E felonies will have the charges expunged from their records after seven or 10 years from the time of conviction, depending on the charge, if they don’t commit any other crimes, even minor ones, during that time period.

The bill does not include convictions involving the actual use of a firearm — only illegal possession — nor, for the most part, crimes involving children and other vulnerable victims, nor violent crimes.

Lamont was wary of the legislation from the start, preferring to begin with a smaller set of misdemeanors before branching out to felony convictions — an idea that drew some Republican support.

If he had vetoed the bill, he would have faced harsh and potentially lasting backlash from advocates — including the most influential lawmakers from the cities that Lamont or any Democrat needs in order to win election in Connecticut.

Republicans criticized the bill for its reach, saying the measure applied to a broad list of crimes including hate crimes and illegally possessing a firearm, which could apply to a student who brought a gun to school. An earlier version adopted by the Senate had to be amended because some Democrats House thought it went too far.

“If you bring a firearm with you to school, that shouldn’t just disappear,” Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, said recently. “There are a lot of legislators here that are concerned about that, and if you asked 100 residents in the state of Connecticut how they felt about that, the vast majority would be opposed.”

Perillo singled out the clean slate bill Thursday as an example of overreach by Democrats in a year when, he and House GOP Leader Vincent Candelora said, debates were skewed by coronavirus restrictions keeping legislators in separated “silos.”

Rep. Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, during the debate in the House a few weeks ago, emphasized the checks and balances that would still be in place if someone, charged with illegal possession of a firearm, went to apply for a pistol permit after the conviction was wiped clean.

The person would still need to pass a background check and suitability review, and maintain a pristine record for a decade, he said.