Thirty-seven years ago, Connecticut’s Chief State’s Attorney lobbied the legislature to oppose a bill establishing a Criminal Justice Commission to appoint state’s attorneys. He claimed this system would create “willy-nilly” “interference” by “political people,” when in fact, as one legislator pointed out, Connecticut’s system of judges appointing prosecutors was alone in the country, itself creating a political “old club or the buddy system where judges … [were] picking their friends as prosecutors.”
Voters soundly rejected the Chief State’s Attorney’s arguments and, in a landslide, chose to create the system we have today, in which the Criminal Justice Commission appoints and reviews state’s attorneys. Yet now, state’s attorneys are using the same tired, decades-old lines about “politics” to oppose a modest, commonsense bill to create data-driven policies to start holding them accountable to their own performance on the job.
Holding prosecutors accountable to standards for fairness and anti-discrimination is exactly the way to ensure prosecutors are not being political in their decision-making about how to treat people. Data-driven performance evaluations and more frequent check-ins with the Criminal Justice Commission are similarly simple, objective tools to make sure state’s attorneys are treating people fairly and to catch any problems before they escalate.
The legislature is currently considering a bill that would start holding prosecutors to fundamental checks and balances. This legislation would shorten state’s attorneys’ term lengths – the time from when a state’s attorney is appointed until their next Criminal Justice Commission reappointment hearing – from eight years to five, bringing them in line with other positions in the Division of Criminal Justice (the Chief State’s Attorney term length is five years, and deputy chief state’s attorneys’ are four) and with national standards. It would also mandate that state’s attorneys create statewide uniform policies for all stages of a case where a prosecutor has discretion and allow the state’s attorneys to actually create the policies. It would require the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) to create publicly available biennial reports summarizing each state’s attorney’s performance, based upon data already being collected by OPM, and require state’s attorneys to check in with the Criminal Justice Commission every two years based on the OPM reports, with opportunities for the state’s attorneys to explain data in the report. The CJC could then consider those data when reappointing state’s attorneys every five years. And finally, it would require additional training for prosecutors regarding racial bias, collateral consequences, sentencing alternatives, mental illness, trauma, and reentry.
Each of these are modest, reasonable steps to create a fairer criminal legal system. In a democracy, we expect public servants to be accountable to the public. We pay taxes that go toward state’s attorneys’ jobs, and we pay the financial and human costs of state’s attorneys’ decisions when it comes to mass incarceration. The Chief State’s Attorney’s office and prosecutors’ unions regularly lobby the legislature for and against legislation, meaning prosecutors themselves also frequently take political positions on issues affecting people’s lives.
At the very least, we should know that state’s attorneys are being publicly evaluated every two years based on standards for fairness and anti-discrimination. S.B. 1018, the bill before the legislature, would work to create a true merit-based system, in which state’s attorneys are accountable to and measured based on how well they do their jobs, not left for eight years without external public oversight.
Unfortunately, under the current system in which state’s attorneys are not held to data-driven performance evaluations or timely check-ins with the Criminal Justice Commission, someone’s experience in the criminal legal system depends largely on zip code. The state recently released data, showing clearly that people’s experiences in Connecticut’s criminal legal system are different depending on where they are prosecuted. For example, people convicted of drug offenses are 2.4 times more likely to get prison sentences in certain parts of the state compared to others.
Asking prosecutors to follow a standard set of rules for fairness and anti-discrimination protections is commonsense and necessary to make sure people are treated fairly across our state no matter what zip code they are in. Right now, there is not enough oversight to prevent discrimination, disparities, or overly harsh sentencing. It is up to state’s attorneys to embrace their roles in preventing each of these things, and it is up to the legislature to ensure the Criminal Justice Commission provides external, public oversight to hold them accountable to that role.
State’s Attorneys cried wolf in 1984, and they are doing so again today. If Connecticut truly wants to take politics out of the criminal legal system, we need state’s attorneys to be held accountable to reasonable checks and balances that we expect of powerful government actors in a democracy.
Kelly McConney Moore is the interim senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Connecticut, the statewide nonprofit, non-partisan membership organization tasked with defending civil rights and liberties in Connecticut. She is on Twitter at @Moore_Kelly_M, and the ACLU of Connecticut is at @acluct.
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