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The findings of a Division of Criminal Justice study released Thursday indicate that Black and Hispanic defendants with no prior convictions are 6% and 5% more likely to be convicted of a crime than whites.

Prosecutors believe that finding is responsible for driving disparities throughout the state’s criminal justice system, including figures that show Blacks and Hispanics have higher conviction rates than whites overall.

Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo told the state Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission that the difference in conviction rates of those without prior convictions, “explains almost all observed system-wide disparity.”

But advocates are calling the data a skewed attempt at denying the systemic racism that is plaguing the state’s criminal justice system.

“From policing to re-entry, the criminal justice system is set up to harm Black and Latinx people who are disproportionately living with criminal records in Connecticut already,” said Claudine Fox, advocacy and policy director for the Connecticut Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Any claims that the Chief State’s Attorney is making about disparities disappearing when they factor in a record of conviction, shows the exact opposite. It proves that the system is doubling down on itself and the racial disparities already within it.”

Colangelo presented the findings during a commission meeting Thursday. The commission is made up of stakeholders within the state’s criminal justice system including Colangelo, Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll, Chief Public Defender Christine Rapillo and other state department heads.

While analyzing 65,000 court cases adjudicated in 2019, statistical analysts from the state Office of Policy and Management determined that 46% of cases with a Black defendant ended with a conviction, compared to 42% for Hispanics and 37% for whites.

But Colangelo said further examination of the defendants’ criminal histories told a different story, erasing much of the disparity.

“Among all defendants with prior criminal histories, conviction rates were relatively consistent across race and ethnicity,” Colangelo said. About 61% of Black, Hispanic and white defendants with a previous felony conviction are convicted again if they face additional charges.

The only significant difference was in the conviction rates of those who had no prior convictions, according to the OPM analysis. For those defendants, 19% of Blacks and 18% of Hispanics with no prior convictions were convicted in 2019, compared to 13% of whites.

“Here, once again, Black and Hispanic defendants had higher conviction rates than whites,” Colangelo said. “In the next year, we will focus on this group to try to unravel this observed disparity.”

Few members of the committee challenged the conclusions, with most agreeing with the findings, including Carroll, who said they validate what he has been saying for years.

“While the numbers tell part of the story, they don’t tell the whole story, and it’s risky and dangerous to draw conclusions and base policy solely on the numbers,” said Carroll. The judge went on to add that “every defendant is different” and the courts, including prosecutors, should have discretion in how to handle cases.

Rapillo was the only committee member to point out that each person in the group has “a duty to look at these disparities to make it better.” 

“It’s not OK for us to say we are doing OK because you can eliminate a lot of disparities based on convictions,” she said.

Corrective measures could include trying to determine how many of the first-time offenders had access to legal counsel when they were convicted, Rapillo said. Colangelo suggested that the division’s Early Intervention Screening program might steer some defendants facing a first-time conviction to services instead of court proceedings.

The presentation included what Colangelo called  “sobering” statistics focusing on the educational and societal drivers of crime in Connecticut. Sixty percent of Black males under the age of 40 die by homicide within five years of being released from prison. For white males in the same age group, 4% die by homicide within five years of release, according to the new data.

Conversely, 63% of white former inmates over the age of 40 die by overdose within five years of release, compared to 10% of Black former inmates and 35% of Hispanic former inmates.

“The state of Connecticut is rife with economic and social disparities,” Colangelo said.

Crime is concentrated in some of the state’s largest cities which are home to 53% of the state’s Black and Hispanic population, the data presented by Colangelo indicated. 

Fox called the ancillary data a “red herring” meant to draw attention away from the fact that prosecutors are largely responsible for who winds up with a conviction. 

“It removes the heat off of the prosecutor’s backs for being part of the problem,” Fox said. “They should be at the forefront of trying to ensure that people don’t end up living with a criminal record. If prosecutors want to break that cycle, they should be working to break it and not explaining it away.”