Clean Slate law would allow full family healing

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For billions across the world, and many of us here in Connecticut, Passover and Easter are opportunities to pause our hectic schedules and re-center our connections to our faiths and to our communities. As Passover and Easter week near their ends, we hope we can all carry that reconnection with our values back into the world around us.

When we each visit our congregations during these holidays, we participate in traditions unique to our personal faiths, Judaism and Catholicism. Though our celebrations are different, we’ll all be marking our collective capacity for change.

The idea of teshuvah, which roughly translates from the Hebrew as “atonement” is central to Judaism. But a clearer, more truthful description of teshuvah would be a return to one’s true self. It’s similar to the joy that animates Easter — a celebration of restoration, when Jesus returned after dying for our sins and, therefore, granted us all the possibility of salvation and renewal.

Both teshuvah and restoration have been on our minds these last few months as we’ve worked with CONECT – Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut – on the Clean Slate Act, legislation that would begin to ensure that true restoration is possible for all of us — especially those who have atoned for past mistakes.

An estimated one in three Connecticut residents have a criminal record of some kind. Because nine in 10 employers, four in five landlords, and three in five institutions of higher education use background checks to screen applicants, a prior conviction, no matter how minor or how old, can make it impossible to move on from one’s painful past. Instead, a criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty — leading to joblessness, blocking access to education, and putting second chances out of reach.

The Clean Slate Act would automatically expunge the records of people with non-violent records after they’ve paid their debt to society and proven their rehabilitation by remaining crime-free, allowing them to finally put their mistakes behind them.

While Connecticut currently allows people to expunge their records after three years for a misdemeanor and five years for a felony, the expungement process is so expensive and difficult to navigate that only a tiny fraction of eligible people are able to successfully clear their records. This means that thousands of our neighbors — our daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers — wait on a system that does not consider their restoration a priority. Generations of families are being destroyed because generations of families are not allowed to fully heal.

During, and in the wake of, these holiest holidays, the idea of restoration oftentimes is framed in the sense of the individual. We ask our congregations and our congregants ask of themselves: how are we, on a daily basis, living our faith? How are we instruments of God’s compassion?

That compassion lives in our daily actions. It lives in the open arms of the 90-year-old ailing dad in Father David’s congregation, anxiously waiting for his son to return home from prison. It lives in our telling of the story of Passover, which reminds us to welcome the seeker in and enable those still searching for redemption.

Compassion lives in our individual ability to help one another, but those actions cannot continue to be prioritized over our collective capacity to heal the system that wounded us in the first place. Compassion can live there too, if only we would give it the chance.

Clean Slate is an opportunity for Connecticut to extend grace to its citizens who have paid their debt to society and worked so hard for teshuvah. In ensuring our neighbors are granted the restoration they have earned, we also extend it to our own society that allowed that denial to go on unabated in the first place. We urge the state legislature to pass Clean Slate and take the first step in a long march towards true restoration for us all.

Fr. David Blanchfield is the pastor of St. Jerome Catholic Church in Norwalk and Rabbi Evan Schultz is the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport. Both are active leaders in Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut (CONECT).

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