HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — Governor Ned Lamont is pressing for a criminal justice reform bill that would wipe clean the records of individuals who committed misdemeanor crimes.
It is a complicated equation. A terrible crime is committed, the time has been served, but is the former prisoner a terrible person?
The idea before the Judiciary Committee would allow an individual to serve their time in prison and then wait seven years before their record was erased.
A Waterbury woman is on a controversial mission to allow a clean slate for all.
Tracie Bernardi went from beauty-queen-to-convict after pledging allegiance to a gang as a teenager.
She served a 30-year sentence at York Correctional Institute in Niantic for her involvement in a 1993 gang-related stabbing of a Waterbury woman.
“I decided I was going to find love in a gang,” Bernardi explained. “Some kids find it in the military, some kids find it in having kids early…I decided…I didn’t realize I was giving my life over to somebody else.”
At 19-years old Bernardi made a devastatingly bad choice and was one of four Los Solidos gang members charged with murder.
“It was kids being kids and we were thinking we were big and it got out of control and someone lost their life and we had to pay for it.”– Tracie Bernardi, Former Inmate York Correctional Institute
She served 23 years in prison – 7 years in solitary confinement. She says the only thing that “kept” her was hope and the knowledge that she was forgiven.
She was released to a halfway house a few years ago. The victim’s family did not contest.
Bernardi’s experience on the outside has given her insight into why convicts return to crime.
“I didn’t understand that freedom wasn’t what it entailed. It was doors shut in your face.” – Tracie Bernardi, Former Inmate York Correctional Institute
When she checked the box on applications acknowledging her criminal past she says society re-tried her over and over again. Jobs and apartment applications were denied.
The American Civil Liberties Union agreed with Bernardi’s observations, so they started a Smart Justice program.
Organizers claim there are 550 legal and regulatory barriers in Connecticut for people who have paid their debt to society.
Governor Ned Lamont is now pushing a bill allowing erasure of criminal records, but only for misdemeanor offenses.
The way the bill is currently written, those who have a DUI offense, a firearm offense, or are convicted of domestic violence could not apply for this program.
“Oftentimes parents will tell their children “if you do the crime you will do the time.” That time should end when you leave prison and not continue for the rest of your life. And that includes people who commit felonies, as difficult as that may be for some of us to rectify in our minds.”– Sen. Gary Winfield, New Haven
The Judiciary Committee is debating the bill. Some say the language denies victims and families a voice in the automatic erasure.
They also point out a process does exist for people like Bernardi to have their records wiped clean.
Representative Rose Rebimbas (Naugatuck) explained there is currently a “pardon and parole process” in which someone with a misdemeanor or a felony can apply if they want to erase their record.
Bernardi now works for Smart Justice and is a Recovery Support Specialist with Community Health Resources.
“When we do come home someday, if you isolate us and push us out, you should be held accountable,” Bernardi expressed.
She says if you really want to stop the recidivism rate, you have to look at every part of criminal justice.
The American Civil Liberties Union Smart Justice project conducted a poll on the Clean Slate legislation.
One of their findings showed that 60% of CT voters – including 70% of Democrats, 53% of Independents, and 56% of Republicans – support laws that allow people to have their criminal records automatically erased after five years without re-offense.