Advocates urge shorter prison sentences
HARTFORD — Immigration advocates and Yale Law School students were back again this year urging an independent state criminal justice agency to recommend reducing misdemeanor sentences from 365 to 364 days in an effort to stem deportations.
That one day would give federal immigration judges more discretion in deportation hearings, the Sentencing Commission was told Thursday.
The one-day reduction in sentencing, recommended by the commission last year, made it through the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, but not through the full General Assembly.
On Thursday it was one of eight issues the Sentencing Commission could again consider recommending to the General Assembly and Governor-elect Ned Lamont in 2019.
Advocates told the commission that shaving one day off the misdemeanor sentences would lower the chance that immigrants convicted of lower level crimes, such as passing a bad check or minor larceny charges, would face interaction with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents.That’s because a one-year misdemeanor sentence in Connecticut is classified by federal authorities as an “aggravated felony” and can mean deportation.
Samantha Smith, a law student intern at the Yale Law School, told the commission: “this modest change would have a big impact on Connecticut’s immigrant community.”
Smith said several other states have recognized the law is unjust and have adopted the 364-day rule. She cited California, Nevada, Washington and Oregon as states that have made the change.
“This reform would simplify the plea bargaining process,” Smith told the commission. “This bill also strengthens state sovereignty. We urge you to help Connecticut join other states in making this modest but meaningful change.”
Jason Ramos, a clinical social worker in New Haven, also urged the commission to once again back the one-day change in the law.
“The scale of this is huge,” Ramos said. He said the misdemeanor arrests that triggered the events are generally minor crimes.
“People commit mistakes - as we all do,” Ramos said. The law the way it is currently enforced “disproportionately targets” immigrants, he said. “When someone is sentenced they are now being targeted by ICE.”
Ramos went on: They are trying to live their lives. They feel regretful (for their crime) and do better. They want to do better but they are kidnapped on their way to work, targeted.”
“This very modest change can have a huge effect on the state, too,” Ramos said. “This is a benefit to the whole community,” stating that when ICE takes a family’s breadwinner away it creates problems for the family left behind which eventually become problems that the state has to take over.
By adopting the 364-day rule Connecticut, Ramos said, would be a “truly progressive state.”
Also pushing the commission to once again adopt the “364-day” initiative was Alok Bhatt, of the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance (CIRA).
“Connecticut should be complicit in this level of punishment on the federal level,” Bhatt told the committee. He said changing the law would have an impact on “black and brown communities and communities of color.”
He urged the commission to “at least take this initial step towards building these protections in our communities to make Connecticut a safe place.”
Last year when the issue came in front of the Sentencing Commission it led to a lengthy discussion among members as to whether it was the commission’s role to change the relationship between the state of Connecticut and the federal government.
But those concerns were outweighed by members of the commission who argued that it was not only their right but their responsibility to make such recommendations.
The commission is also considering expanding voting rights to convicted felons on parole and studying the possibility of facilitating voting “by eligible persons who are incarcerated.”
Last year, the House debated and then tabled a bill that would restore voting rights to parolees who are still serving their sentences. The issue is likely to come up again this year with or without a recommendation from the commission.
In addition, the commission is looking at moving Connecticut from a conviction-based sex offender registry to a risk-based registry focused on the risk.
Connecticut is one of the few states that does not currently allow an individual an opportunity to be removed from its sex offender registry. The commission is proposing having all sex offenders register, but the length of time on the registry would be reduced based on whether they meet certain requirements.
The commission’s next meeting will be held at 2 p.m., Dec. 19.