Nationwide, 95 percent of criminal cases end in plea deals, meaning it is usually a prosecutor, not a judge or a jury, who decides the fate of someone ensnared in the justice system. Prosecutors hold people’s lives in their hands, yet Connecticut residents have very little information about prosecutors’ decisions. While racial disparities in Connecticut’s prisons and jails are very clear, for instance, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint prosecutors roles in driving those inequities. The ACLU of Connecticut’s Smart Justice campaign has set out to change that.
This year, as a result of a months-long effort from Smart Justice, Connecticut is poised to become the first state with a wide-ranging prosecutorial transparency law. Under a bill passed unanimously by the legislature, Connecticut will collect and publish information about prosecutors’ actions on charging, plea deals, diversionary programs, and sentencing, and demographic information to track whether prosecutors treat people differently according to race, age, gender, income, or geography.
The bill is a direct result of the ACLU of Connecticut’s Smart Justice leaders, who are directly impacted by the justice system, calling for change, and it is part of a longer-term Smart Justice effort to create meaningful prosecutorial accountability.
“Connecticut voters recognize that with prosecutors’ enormous power comes a responsibility for them to be transparent and open with the public, and voters know our state should be collecting and reporting information about what prosecutors do,” said Smart Justice field organizer Gus Marks-Hamilton. “If Connecticut is going to create a smarter justice system, all of us need more transparency on what prosecutors are doing, and we need as much of that information as possible.”
Last summer and fall, Smart Justice asked all candidates for Governor if they would introduce legislation to require the state to collect and publish statistics about prosecutors’ decisions. Then-candidate Ned Lamont pledged to do so. Following a Smart Justice-led sign-on request from nearly 30 organizations, Lamont publicly released a criminal justice reform platform. In December, Smart Justice was a vocal presence on Governor Lamont’s criminal justice policy transition team, leading the group to release a list of recommendations that included introducing prosecutorial transparency legislation.
Surrounded by powerful legislators and advocates, Smart Justice launched at the Capitol in January. Field organizers Anderson Curtis, Gus Marks-Hamilton, and Sandy LoMonico became registered lobbyists, and Smart Justice immediately began educating legislators about the need for a law to open up what one news outlet called “the black box of prosecutors’ decisions.”
Ten months after Smart Justice first asked if he would introduce and support prosecutorial transparency legislation – Governor Lamont fulfilled one of his promises by proposing S.B. 880, An Act Increasing Fairness and Transparency in the Criminal Justice System. Smart Justice flooded the Capitol for S.B. 880’s public hearing. In a powerful, silent display of solidarity, a hearing room full of supporters stood in unison as Marks-Hamilton and ACLU of Connecticut executive director David McGuire testified about the need for information about what prosecutors do.
“Transparency is critical for our democracy, and no part of the government should be exempt from sunlight,” said Gus Marks-Hamilton. “If our state is going to create a smarter justice system, all of us need numbers on what prosecutors are doing.”
Bolstered by Smart Justice-commissioned public opinion polling showing statewide bipartisan support for a bill like S.B. 880, leaders continued lobbying for the bill, ultimately gathering support from victims’ rights and criminal justice reform groups, a bipartisan group of legislators, and the Chief State’s Attorney.
On May 28, 2019, days after a final push in which dozens of Smart Justice leaders rallied at the Capitol in support of S.B. 880, the Senate unanimously passed the bill. On June 4, the House of Representatives followed and unanimously passed the bill. Governor Lamont announced that he planned to sign it into law, and at press time, the bill awaits action from the Governor.
This piece is part of a series of stories from the 2019 Civil Liberties Update, the ACLU of Connecticut's newsletter. You can read the full newsletter here.