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January 23, 2023

CT’s new Clean Slate law could boost workforce, but employers must take note

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER State Sen. Gary Winfield (D-New Haven) speaks at the Greater Hartford Reentry Welcome Center earlier this month during a press conference about Connecticut’s Clean Slate law.

Almost 44,000 residents had their low-level drug convictions erased at the beginning of the year as part of Connecticut’s new Clean Slate law, knocking down one barrier to entry for those hoping to reenter the workforce and move on from past legal issues.

With parts of Connecticut’s Clean Slate law going into effect Jan. 1, there are several changes employers must keep an eye on to ensure they don’t run afoul of the new rules as they go through the hiring process.

With almost 100,000 open jobs in the state, employment experts said the law could strengthen Connecticut’s workforce at a time when there are more jobs available than people who can fill them.

Earlier this month, Gov. Ned Lamont and other state officials met at the Greater Hartford Reentry Welcome Center, run by reentry nonprofit Community Partners in Action, to speak about the new state law’s potential impact.

“Hope and opportunity translate into jobs and a career,” Lamont said. “We need you, we need everybody. We need 40,000-plus people able to get back into the workforce, able to keep our economy growing.”

The law

On Jan. 1, 43,754 low-level cannabis possession convictions were erased as part of the launch of the state’s automated erasure system.

Potentially hundreds of thousands of more record erasures through the Clean Slate law are expected to begin in the second half of 2023, when the program is fully implemented.

At the start of the year, convictions between 2000 and September 30, 2015, for possession of under 4 ounces of cannabis, were automatically erased. Other cannabis-related convictions could also be erased pending a petition submission to the state Superior Court.

The full extent of the law makes those with misdemeanor records eligible for conviction erasure after seven years; low-level felony records will be eligible for erasure after 10 years, with some exceptions.

At the recent Greater Hartford Reentry Welcome Center event, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin called the law “groundbreaking legislation that provided a clean slate for so many people in our city and around our state who had made mistakes, but then made a change and are just trying to live strong, productive lives in our community.”

Luke Bronin

Marc Pelka, an undersecretary in the state’s Office of Policy and Management’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, said that 35% of the people who had automatic erasures on Jan. 1, were Black. Eleven percent of erased convictions came from Hartford, and another 8% were from New Haven.

Clean Slate’s full rollout has been delayed until later in the year. Pelka said the state is investing millions of dollars into upgrading information technology infrastructure to allow criminal justice agencies to send and receive data about future automatic erasures.

State Sen. Gary Winfield (D-New Haven) has been one of the Clean Slate law’s most public advocates for the past several years. While he’s expressed disappointment that the full rollout has been delayed, he said the law represents progress toward looking at past offenders in a different light.

Gary Winfield

He said he’s “completely committed” to getting the full law rolled out in 2023.

Meantime, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said the law will serve as a potential boost to the workforce.

“This is really great news for employers, because there are 100,000 open jobs and not enough people to take those jobs,” Bysiewicz said about the law. “It’s so important that as people come out of our corrections system that they have the opportunities to make use of job training programs.”

Employer impact

Daniel A. Schwartz, an employment attorney and partner at Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin, said these conviction erasures could open up new doors for people looking for jobs.

“It’s going to restrict employers from being able to use past convictions in certain instances and give employees the opportunity to find work that they might otherwise have been excluded from,” Schwartz said.

Daniel A. Schwartz

Employers should take several steps in the wake of the Clean Slate law, including updating their employment application. Schwartz said that if an application asks any question concerning criminal history, the document must include a clarification about what should be included.

“Employers on their job applications need to make sure they have a disclaimer if they’re asking for prior convictions that employees don’t need to disclose any erased records,” Schwartz said.

Employers that ignore Clean Slate could make themselves open to lawsuits. The law makes it a discriminatory practice to consider an erased record during the hiring process. If a would-be employee were to allege that was the sole reason for an adverse employment action like not being hired, an employer could be liable.

But even before Clean Slate, Connecticut had some restrictions on what employers could ask potential employees, said Vincent Farisello, a partner at Connecticut law firm Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey.

Vincent Farisello

“Since 2016, Connecticut has had what’s called a ‘ban the box’ law, which essentially means that for the most part, employers in Connecticut cannot ask about criminal history on an initial employment application,” said Farisello, adding that law enforcement agencies and certain other employers can be exempt from this statute.

Farisello said it’s important for employers to update their equal employment opportunity policies to include these new erased records as a protected class. Educating hiring managers on the law is important too, Farisello said.

Both employment lawyers also said it’s important to take conviction erasures into consideration during background checks. Farisello said making third-party background check companies aware of the law change is important.

Schwartz said employers should be “cautious” when looking into older criminal records during the hiring process.

“If they run background checks, they should not assume that the information on the background check can be relied upon because there may be limits to how that information is to be used, or maybe the record has been cleaned or is incomplete,” Schwartz said. “An employer might just do a Google search — the erasure of the criminal records isn’t going to erase the internet.”

Farisello said he’s already seen the “tides turning a bit” over the past several years regarding employers’ willingness to hire people with past convictions, and Clean Slate is another step in that direction.

“This will go a long way to clearing some of those barriers (of employment) because the law says an employer cannot deny employment based on the existence of these erased records,” Farisello said.

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