Sunday November 25, 2012

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

Some state officials believe that recidivism rate would be lower if Connecticut 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 Thurs day at the Legislative Office Build ing in Hartford. The proposal is one of several the panel is considering recommending to state lawmakers for next year’s legislative session.

"If you make it virtually im possible 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 vice chairman of the Sentencing Commission.

The proposed law would al low judges and the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to issue "certificates of rehabilitation" to convicts who don’t pose a public danger. It would require public housing authorities, em ployers and state licensing agencies to consider those certificates while evaluating job and housing applicants, but not mandate that their applications be approved. A similar bill with stronger mandates died in this year’s legislative session after housing officials worried about be ing forced to accept convicts into their complexes.

"What is the concern? The safety of the residents and staff, especially the seniors and people with disabilities," said Scott Bertrand, executive dir ec tor of the Enfield Housing Authority. Bertrand said housing officials already consider criminal backgrounds, so he wasn’t quite sure why a new law is needed.

The Connecticut Business & Industry Association, which rep resents 10,000 companies in the state, 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," Gioia said.

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

She has worked as a part-time school-crossing guard for the past six years. She was certified as a nurse’s aide in 2006, but her conviction kept her from getting a job in that profession.

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

Many states in recent years have changed employment practices, enacted policies to re store civil rights and expanded access to public benefits for convicts, according to a study re leased this year by The Sen tencing Project, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that does research and advocacy on criminal justice issues.

Last year, 29 states adopted policies that may contribute to prison population decreases and re duce the consequences of convictions, the study said.

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