Salvation for the oppressed?
Legislators, Nonprofit Group Work To Help Ex-Offenders Win Pardons
Wednesday Event At Capitol Will Publicize Informational Sessions
January 8, 2007
By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press, The Hartford Courant
Jacqueline Caron still remembers the sinking feeling of being fired from a good-paying job 25 years ago after her employer learned she had a criminal record.
Embarrassed by her past, Caron had lied on her job application and claimed she had no convictions.
"On that day, I swore that I would never be put in that situation again," Caron said.
These days, the Norwich alderwoman is trying to teach others how to try to erase their criminal records by seeking pardons from the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Caron, also a legislative aide, is teaming up with Connecticut lawmakers to get the word out and help others get on with their lives.
The focus on pardons comes as state lawmakers and Gov. M. Jodi Rell work to reduce the state's recidivism rate and Connecticut's burgeoning prison population. In recent years they have set aside funds to help former inmates find mental health treatment, housing, jobs and other basic services.
Part of the effort involved combining the Board of Pardons and Board of Parole in 2004 to create the Board of Pardons and Paroles, making it more accessible to the public. The board is also holding more hearings so former offenders can make their cases for pardons.
On Wednesday, members of Caron's nonprofit Connecticut Pardon Team, along with lawmakers and the African-American Affairs Commission, will gather at the Capitol to draw attention to informational meetings being held around the state.
Dianne Daniels, executive director of the Connecticut Pardon Team, said interest in pardons is growing, especially since background checks for employment are now more common and extensive than before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"A lot of people are now faced with that challenge, that their background is coming back to haunt them," she said.
Daniels said she has heard from a mother afraid to volunteer more hours at her child's school because a background check would be required. She also has heard from people fearful about applying for jobs or seeking promotions because of convictions from decades ago.
A recent meeting in Waterbury drew nearly 500 people. Another forum is planned in New Britain on Feb. 22.
To apply for a pardon, ex-offenders must have completed parole and/or probation successfully, remained conviction-free for at least five years, taken significant steps toward rebuilding their lives, worked to give back to their community, and set an example for other convicted people, according to the pardon team's website.
Those applying for pardons must fill out forms, compile personal statements and submit letters of reference.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, a criminal defense attorney, hosted a forum last month in his city. About 40 people attended.
Looney has seen some former offenders get frustrated and break the law again because their records prevent them from finding well-paid work.
"You see it all the time," he said. "We have in Connecticut and many other states large numbers of people who are serving life prison sentences on the installment plan - a few years at a time."
Looney is so impressed by the Connecticut Pardon Team's education efforts that he pledged to try to find funding in the new two-year state budget for the group, which recently gained nonprofit status. Much of the group's funding to date has come from Caron and her colleagues. The city of Norwich recently contracted the organization to hold informational sessions, Caron said.
Looney said he also plans to work on legislation to ensure pardons are reflected in the state information provided for background checks. Sometimes, old crimes still pop up.
Caron received a pardon in 2000 for her past crimes, which included substance abuse convictions, larceny and breach of peace. She said the new pardon process is easier than what she had to go through. In the past, for example, former offenders were not told why their applications weren't accepted.
"It has become really user-friendly," she said.
But Caron stresses that not every application is accepted. While the Connecticut Pardon Team doesn't discourage anyone from trying, she said the group is realistic about the chances of having a past crime expunged.
"We are very frank and up front and open about the crime and the probability," she said. "We are not the decision-makers. That is totally up to the pardon board. All we do is educate the community."