Every Connecticut resident is affected by the decisions made by Connecticut prosecutors, known as “state’s attorneys” in our state. People accused or convicted of a crime and their families, victims of a crime and their families, and taxpayers who foot the bills for both prosecutors’ budgets and the cost of incarceration are impacted by the criminal justice system and deserve to know about the role that prosecutors play in the operation of the criminal justice system and in the mass incarceration of Connecticut residents.
As some of the most powerful people in the criminal justice system, prosecutors hold people’s lives in their hands. Prosecutors decide whether to keep, change, or drop a charge against someone; whether to offer a plea deal; whether to recommend bail; how a case is investigated; and whether to offer someone who is accused of a crime the chance to participate in a diversionary program, like drug treatment, instead of trying to send them to prison. Nationwide, 95 percent of criminal cases end in plea bargains, meaning that most of the time it is the prosecutors, not judges and juries, who decide how a case is resolved.
Despite the enormous power that prosecutors wield, Connecticut residents have very little information about what they do. The state does not collect or publish statistics about prosecutors’ actions, and Connecticut’s Division of Criminal Justice, which oversees prosecutors, is generally exempt from the State Freedom of Information Act. This makes it almost impossible for people to get information about the decisions of state’s attorneys. The current lack of information about prosecutors’ work hinders both the public and policymakers. Without data, it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and understand why there are substantial racial disparities in the Connecticut criminal justice system. We know that people of color are overrepresented in Connecticut state prisons and jails. Without data about the prosecutorial process, however, it is impossible to understand if these racial disparities are in part rooted in the prosecutorial decision-making process.
Senate Bill 880 is an important first step toward meaningful transparency. The bill would require the state to collect, report, and publish information about prosecutors’ decisions on a public website each year. That information would include demographic information about who prosecutors decide, or decline to, prosecute, as well as data on charging, diversionary programs, and sentencing. If passed, the bill would make this information public in 2020.
Transparency is critical for our criminal justice system. If our state is going to create a smarter justice system, all of us need more information about what prosecutors are doing. We strongly urge the legislature to support Senate Bill 880 to bring transparency to this part of the criminal justice system.