Opinion: Clean Slate has a proven history of success

The exterior of the Stamford Superior Courthouse in Stamford.

The exterior of the Stamford Superior Courthouse in Stamford.

File photo

Connecticut has a historic opportunity to build public safety and foster prosperity for many who have been denied equitable access to it. SB 1019 is a pending bill, known as the Clean Slate bill, which, if passed, will help hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents by clearing their criminal records.

We all care about public safety. We have been conditioned to expect the worst from those who have committed crimes in the past, but this worry about repeated criminal conduct tempts us to paint others with too broad a brush. Not all past crimes are good indicators of future risk, and a superficial fear response can stop us from looking more deeply for the best ways to improve public safety for all.

Research shows us that some of the best ways to reduce recidivism rates among residents returning from incarceration are creating real opportunities for access to education, housing and employment. Yet criminal histories block these important routes for reintegration in the community. Simply put, if we want safer communities, we need to provide our fellow residents pathways to education, housing and employment.

While there are understandable reasons for employers to want to know about an individual’s recent and serious criminal history, Clean Slate proposes to clear records of low-level crimes from long ago, expungement of which research has shown poses a lower safety risk than those posed by the average member of the general public.

In my home state of Michigan, we had the opportunity to study, over decades, the behavior of thousands of Michigan residents who had low-level convictions. The conclusions were clear: these residents actually posed lower safety risks than members of the general population. Shutting those with convictions out of society due to the stigma of a criminal record served no good public safety purpose.

We also all care about shared prosperity in our communities. Clean Slate is key to economic growth. Research in Michigan showed that expunging a resident’s criminal record resulted in an immediate increase in earnings averaging 23 percent, as people with convictions were able to secure first-time employment or improve their job prospects. In a society with widening income and wealth gaps, erasing criminal records may be the most powerful anti-poverty tool we have. It turns out that sometimes helping people succeed can be as simple as getting the government out of the way.

So, if providing a clean slate through record cleanup is good for safety and shared prosperity, how do we make sure it happens? As useful as erasing criminal records can be, the disheartening reality is that programs that require eligible people to petition for and have a hearing are seldom used. That’s why Connecticut’s bill, which allows for automatic expungement of low-level offenses, is so important.

In my state, only 6 percent of those eligible for conviction cleanup hearings, equivalent to Connecticut’s pardon process, ever make it through the entire expungement process. A process for granting forgiveness and dignity is hypocrisy if it isn’t really available to those who need it. It’s easy for lawyers and judges to think a procedure, like the pardon process, is simple, when it is actually daunting for a regular person. People often don’t know they are eligible for pardons, can’t afford to hire an attorney for help, or are ashamed to revisit a past mistake they want to keep in the past. That’s why, in Connecticut, only 3 percent of those eligible for a pardon received relief through the system — a shockingly low percentage confirmed by a study released just this year.

Many of us are fortunate enough never to have had a serious encounter with the justice system, and it’s easy to assume that our experience is the norm. The reality is that about 30 percent of Connecticut residents have some sort of criminal conviction, often decades old, acting like an anchor dragging them down every day. I didn’t want hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents to be held back after having paid their debt to society, and so I decided to do something about it. If you want liberation for hundreds of thousands of fellow community members in Connecticut and a safer, more economically prosperous state, then call your legislator, thank them for considering SB 1019, and ask for their vote in favor of Clean Slate.

David LaGrand is a Michigan legislator who in 2020 worked to pass Michigan’s automatic expungement or “Clean Slate” law with broad bipartisan support.