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CT’s right to collect money from former prisoners is curtailed but not ended

Thomas Hawk

The state will no longer have the ability to claw back money that formerly incarcerated people win through lawsuits — unless individuals were convicted of “certain serious crimes.”

Legislators considered a bill this session that would have eliminated the state’s authority to collect so-called prison debt if formerly incarcerated people came upon a windfall via lottery winnings, inheritance or a lawsuit. But despite receiving a lot of media attention throughout the session, the bill did not get called for a vote in the House or Senate.

“That was an important bill to us, given the impact on all communities, particularly communities of color,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, which held a public hearing on the bill and passed it out of committee.

But a provision of the budget lawmakers approved in the waning days of session reins in the state’s ability to charge people for having spent time in prison or jail. Now, the state can still take money gained through the lottery or inheritance, but it can take money awarded in lawsuits only if an individual is currently or was previously incarcerated for capital felony or murder with special circumstances, felony murder, first- and second-degree sexual assault, first-degree aggravated sexual assault, or aggravated sexual assault of a minor.

The measure also provides a $50,000 buffer for the currently incarcerated, providing them a possibility of holding on to some of their funds.

“If you have a million bucks, [the state] is going to rob you blind, but you’re going to be left with $50,000,” said Dan Barrett, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut, describing a scenario that a currently incarcerated person could now face. But if they were convicted of one of the listed crimes, “you will not even be left with the $50,000; they’ll take it all.”

Barrett, whose organization has an ongoing lawsuit with the state over its prison debt practices, said that before the budget passed, the state had an array of ways it could collect debt from people who were released from prison, taking money they gained from lawsuits or inheritances, or property the formerly incarcerated leave to their loved ones.

Thanks to the law change, Barrett said, the state will not be able to take money from lawsuits, but the rest of the options remain on the table.

“So, anyone who is inheriting money, anyone who has managed to save some money and wants to pass it along to their kids, and anyone who wins the lottery, they’re unaffected by the amendment,” said Barrett.

“The state deciding it is no longer going after people’s lawsuit winnings is a huge development,” Barrett said. “Think of somebody who gets out of prison and they get hit by a car crossing the street. What does that have to do with their prison debt?”

Winfield said carving out people convicted of certain serious crimes is a part of the negotiating required to get the budget through the legislature.

“There has to be agreement for things to go in the implementer,” he said. “There is a thought in the General Assembly among some that the people who have committed that class of crimes, no matter where they are in life, are forever who they were when they committed those crimes. And the way we deal with them is reminding them on a daily basis, no matter what they’ve done, that they can’t do anything more.”

Winfield pointed out that some are individuals who served their time in the prison system and have since been released, “but we can’t wrap our heads around the fact that someone could have committed a terrible crime and still be a human being.”

Advocates have been working for years to get rid of prison liens. Da’ee McKnight said he and Fred Hodges, both of whom work for Family Reentry/Community Resource for Justice in Bridgeport, have been advocating on the issue for the past decade. McKnight said they worked with a broad coalition this session — including Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, Quinnipiac Law School professor Sarah Russell, Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, and Winfield — to get the measure passed.

McKnight, who served 17 1/2 years in prison, said such liens keep formerly incarcerated people, who already have a hard time finding work because of the stigma of a criminal record, trapped in poverty.

“The majority of people in prison come from impoverished communities,” he said.

McKnight received money from lawsuit settlements from two separate car accidents after he got out of prison in 2005. He said the state came after him both times, taking half the money he received for his injuries.

“Whatever award you’re given is not a windfall. It’s supposed to make you whole, because you were injured,” he said.

The language in the budget implementer is progress, McKnight said, and he is grateful — but he hopes that one day the state ends prison liens against everyone, including those convicted of those serious crimes.

“This is about ending economic sanctions that you’re putting on poor people,” he said. “When you exclude a certain group of people, then it appears to be just what it is, which is a punishment.”

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