From California to Connecticut the political left is purporting to believe that the failure of former offenders to reintegrate fully into society is caused by the stigma of their criminal records. This is mistaken.
Instead the problem is mainly the former offenders’ lack of education and job skills, the deficiencies that pushed them toward crime in the first place. In Connecticut many jobs, especially in manufacturing, are unfilled because of a lack of skilled applicants, but the jobs are likely to remain vacant, if the manufacturers stick around, because most students in the state graduate from high school without mastering basic math and English, many well prepared for lives of crime.
For if someone is skilled enough, most employers will hire him despite a criminal record. The Nazi scientist and SS officer Wernher von Braun, inventor of the V-2 rocket used by Germany in World War II, was quickly hired by the U.S. Army after the war. As the Space Age dawned von Braun actually became an American hero.
Arguing that criminal record stigma is what keeps former offenders from securing jobs and housing, Governor Lamont and many Democratic legislators are striving to diminish accountability in the criminal-justice system by requiring erasure of most criminal records after a grace period. Advocates of the “clean slate” legislation claim it is unfair for prospective employers, landlords, lenders, and romantic partners to know what they’re getting into.
While the governor proposes erasing only misdemeanor convictions, the erasure movement is becoming bolder, with Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, proposing to erase records of many felonies too.
Supporting the legislation, Tammy King of Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut declares, “Misdemeanors never hurt no one.” Yet Connecticut’s misdemeanors include criminally negligent homicide, certain assaults, certain sexual assaults, threatening, reckless endangerment, unlawful restraint, custodial interference, criminal mischief, larceny, and stalking. Victims of those offenses might resent King’s flippant dismissal of their troubles.
The felonies Winfield would erase - Class C, D, and E felonies - include manslaughter with a firearm, manslaughter with a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, certain sexual assaults including sexual assault with a firearm, robbery, burglary, arson, larceny, bribery, forgery, identity theft, possession of child pornography, misconduct with a motor vehicle, and violation of protective orders. Records erasure would mock many crime victims here too.
These offenses are also matters of character, offenses for which no one needs much education or a statute book to realize they are wrong. While character can change, it also can endure. When criminal records are erased, will people be safer in their ignorance?
Besides, it’s not as if criminal justice is so tough in Connecticut. It is actually already lenient. Most offenses are already heavily discounted by plea bargaining in court, where felonies commonly become misdemeanors. Many felonies and misdemeanors are already erased through various probations, And many perpetrators of the most serious crimes are already [found to be repeat offenders with long records who nevertheless have remained free because the state lacks an incorrigibility law.
Keeping the public ignorant may pass for liberalism these days but it will never be justice.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.