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ACLU voices support for key criminal justice reforms

Manuel Sandoval, a Smart Justice leader with the ACLU CT, speaking at the rally on Wednesday morning. KELAN LYONS / CT MIRROR
Manuel Sandoval, a Smart Justice leader with the ACLU CT, speaking at the rally on Wednesday morning. KELAN LYONS / CT MIRROR

The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocates on Wednesday rallied in support of legislation aimed at reforming key parts of the criminal justice process.

The rally at the state Capitol was in support of four bills raised this session. SB 307 would increase prosecutor accountability with new protocols and training. SB 306 would prohibit police from using deceptive interrogation tactics. SB 5248 would allow those previously incarcerated to get an occupational license. SB 459 would end solitary confinement in prisons.

Claudine Constant, public policy and advocacy director of ACLU CT, said she was in support of SB 307.

Constant said prosecutors have the most say in who lands in the criminal legal system. Yet they do so behind the scenes without much public scrutiny.

“Their focus on obtaining convictions and securing severe prison sentences, instead of addressing the root causes of crime, continues to be a major driver of mass incarceration that compounds racial disparities throughout this system,” Constant said.

Jess Zaccagnino, policy counsel with ACLU CT, said she supports SB 306 because deceptive interrogation tactics hurt more than they help. She also said the bill would prevent false confessions from innocent suspects.

Zaccagnino told the story of 16-year-old Bobby Johnson, from New Haven, who was interrogated in 2006 with deceptive tactics that led him to confessing to a murder he didn’t commit. Johnson served nine years in prison before being released in 2015.

Alex Brown, a Smart Justice leader with the ACLU CT, said it was important to pass SB 5248 so those with a record can move on with their lives after doing their time and help others who might be struggling.

Brown, who was convicted around 10 years ago, is now a student at Central Connecticut State University and studying to become a social worker.

“Unfortunately, due to my background, the barriers are suffocating for myself and others who society is refusing to accept,” Brown said. “I know that my next career steps of becoming a licensed clinical social worker will be especially complicated, if not impossible, due to my record.”

She said the state is contradicting itself by discriminating against those with a record even in the midst of a labor shortage.

The legislature passed a bill last year reducing the prison system’s use of solitary confinement, but the governor vetoed it. Instead, Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order that he framed as better for the safety of corrections staff and the incarcerated themselves while still reducing the Department of Correction’s use of isolated confinement.

“You are not rehabilitating people when you’re caging them all day,” said Barbara Fair, lead organizer for Stop Solitary CT. “These people have to go back home and be moms and dads and sisters and brothers and uncles. And they can’t do that when they’ve been harmed psychologically from being isolated.”

Advocates and the DOC reached a deal earlier this session to pass a bill that would codify many of the provisions of the governor’s executive order and establish independent oversight of the prison system. Fair said she and other members of Stop Solitary CT have been meeting with legislators and the executive branch in the hopes of avoiding a veto.

“It looks like we’re definitely going to get this bill signed this year,” said Fair.

The independent watchdog and civilian panels are particularly important pieces of the legislation, Fair said, to ensure the DOC remains in compliance with the new law.

“Without oversight, anything that we get passed, unless there’s oversight to make sure that it’s happening, we have nothing,” said Fair.

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