This week there appears to be more traction in the state House and Senate about a special session to address COVID-19-related issues, as well as police accountability, voter access for the general election in November and perhaps some needed tweaks to keep government running through the long summer. It looks like the magic date will be July 23, and the agenda will be limited to just must-do items.
As we reported, the special session will be conducted with limited to no in-person interaction with a teleconference technology that legislators will use to vote remotely from their offices. Debates will be unique as folks will be assigned spots so there is at least six feet of distance between the speaker and whoever else is on deck. It's definitely going to be a challenge.
Let's address the elephant in the room: will they address the large, complex issue of racial injustice or take the first step in enhancing police accountability?
As we mentioned in an earlier column, Connecticut is in a better spot than other states when it comes to police accountability, but there's still room for improvement. Some of the ideas being worked out include mandated reporting by police officers who are aware of misconduct, mandated intervention and requiring ALL law enforcement officials to wear body cameras. It wouldn't just be up to the municipalities to make the call anymore.
State Police do not permit their officers to perform a "chokehold", and have specific criteria when using "neck restraints", but some want a statuary ban for both across all state and local departments. Civilian police review boards, which are designed to reflect their local communities, may gain more power and be able to review public complaints, and not just internal complaints. This could include the hiring of investigators who would fully explore the details of a situation laid out in a complaint.
Some legislators are looking to "de-certify" any officer convicted of misconduct, ban "no knock" warrants, define false accusations motivated by race, gender or religion as a separate criminal offense and implement the "three strikes and you're out" rule.
When looking at the larger picture, and the difficult issues of social justice and racial imbalance, there's so much ground to cover. All proponents are calling for systemic and structural changes. The House and Senate have different approaches to the same concerns. The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus (BPRC) announced their initiatives this past week, which include affordable home ownership, increased access to elections, economic justice and accessibility to education and healthcare. All of these issues have been kicking around the Capitol for decades, but perhaps now there's enough momentum to tackle what the BPRC is calling low hanging fruit to start incremental change in Connecticut.
Interestingly, we didn't hear any proponents bring up the redistribution of wealth (aka Tax Reform). It seems that everyone is sensitive to how fragile our economy is right now and focused on behavioral changes that can make a huge difference.
There was some discussion from Senate Democrats on looking for solutions that would, in the words of Senator Gary Winfield, "Push for the farthest reaching bill possible. Some people would call it radical, I would just call it what we should have been doing the whole time."
Some ideas he mentioned include removing zoning restrictions that allow affluent suburban and rural communities to prevent affordable housing, reforming the education system to require an increase in minority teacher recruitment and allowing students from poor communities to attend better-funded, "high opportunity" school districts.
As far as the labor market goes, many have spoken about increased compensation for low paid workers in nursing homes, retail and community based, non-profit social service agencies, despite Connecticut's progressive minimum wage law that passed two sessions ago. There's a lot of details and issues to find consensus on in the next several months.
BPRC Chairman and State Representative Brandon McGee of Hartford made a statement that rings true: "True economic justice cannot be achieved until we end the criminalization of poverty and level the playing field for all."
I, for one, can't agree more with Rep. McGee. The culture of poverty is so much a part of what impacts the ability and empowerment of all people to get ahead, to live their dreams and create a better future for their families. The need to redesign our social services so folks can continue their education, walk the path of personal growth, gain employment, secure long-term economic independence and realize the dream of home ownership is fundamental to fulfilling that America pledge, "E Pluribus Unum"-"From Many, One".
We all have a vested interest in these fundamental changes. It's about finding a consensus on how Connecticut moves FORWARD.