State’s Attorneys are some of the most powerful and least accountable actors in the criminal legal system. The Chief State’s Attorney, as head of the Division of Criminal Justice, sets the tenor and tone for all State’s Attorneys and line-level prosecutors in Connecticut, wields enormous power and influence through legislative lobbying, and oversees a budget of more than $50 million. In each of these aspects of their job, the Chief State’s Attorney has the ability to either pursue policies that help to decrease incarceration and racism, or that continue or worsen both.
Tomorrow, May 12, the Criminal Justice Commission will choose a Chief State’s Attorney from two finalists for the job: Patrick Griffin (currently New Haven State’s Attorney) and Sharmese Walcott (currently Hartford State’s Attorney). Dawn Gallo, the former Litchfield State’s Attorney, has bowed out of the process.
The next Chief State’s Attorney will have a lot to prove. They will have to show, by their actions and not just words, whether they are committed to creating accountability for State’s Attorneys to prevent the kinds of corruption and politicization that have shown up in that system for decades. They will have to demonstrate, again through actions, whether they will commit the Division of Criminal Justice to becoming an agency that values justice over convictions, people over prisons, and safe and healthy communities over policing. They will have to show, through their actions, whether they will commit the Division of Criminal Justice to ending the rampant racism and geographic disparities evident in sentencing disparities throughout Connecticut, or if they will retain the status quo.
Connecticut’s last Chief State’s Attorney, Richard Colangelo, resigned from his position amidst an investigation into his decision to hire a state budget official’s daughter while Colangelo was lobbying that official for raises for himself and other State’s Attorneys. That investigation once again revealed huge, ongoing lack of accountability for State’s Attorneys – including the Chief State’s Attorney. Unfortunately, the legislature has not fixed any of the systemic factors that enabled Colangelo’s behavior. Colangelo’s was not the first scandal enabled by the current State’s Attorney system, and unless the next Chief State’s Attorney truly commits, it will likely not be the last.
Under the current State’s Attorney system, in every GA court in Connecticut, Black people are convicted more often than white people. People convicted of drug offenses are 2.4 times more likely to get prison sentences in some parts of the state than in others. The next Chief State’s Attorney could use their considerable budget, lobbying influence, and political influence within the State’s Attorney system to change both of those facts, or not.
Smart Justice sent a survey to both of the Chief State’s Attorney finalists to ask them critical questions about their views. Through this survey, we hoped to find out where candidates stand on investing in real health and safety instead of prisons and policing, and on creating meaningful accountability systems for State’s Attorneys – not just to prevent corruption, but to prevent ongoing geographic and racial disparities in Connecticut’s criminal legal system.
We are not endorsing or opposing either candidate for the job. Both of their answers make clear that, if appointed, they would have an enormous amount of work to do to prove that they are committed to valuing people over prisons and policing. Neither appear to be robustly in support of meaningful accountability systems for State’s Attorneys. Both appear content with allowing State’s Attorneys to continue regulating themselves.
The next Chief State’s Attorney is inheriting a position marred by scandal and a State’s Attorney system that has been allowed to regulate itself for decades. A Chief State’s Attorney who wished to differentiate themselves from corruption and geographic and racial disparities would need to fully embrace meaningful, external accountability systems, new lobbying priorities, and new policies. It remains to be seen whether either candidate for the job would do so.
Below are copies of the finalists’ full survey responses, as well as biographies provided by them, in their own words. We have also included a chart of the candidates’ full yes or no responses, along with the ACLU of Connecticut’s preferred response to each question. In places where the candidate did not provide a clear yes or no answer, we have noted it as “unclear.”
Smart Justice will testify during the public comment period of the Criminal Justice Commission meeting tomorrow. No matter what happens, we’re ready to keep advocating for the next Chief State’s Attorney to embrace their role in decreasing incarceration and racism in the criminal legal system. We also know that this is only one piece of creating real safety and health in our communities. To be truly safe and healthy, Connecticut will need to divest from policing and prisons and start investing in programs and services that help people, and legislators will need to do their part to make that happen.
I have been a prosecuting attorney with the Division of Criminal Justice for approximately 27 years, and currently serve as the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of New Haven. As the New Haven State’s Attorney, I am the chief law enforcement officer for the Judicial District of New Haven, which includes the city of New Haven and twelve surrounding communities. In this capacity, I am responsible for the supervision of the prosecutors’ offices at the Judicial District Superior Court in New Haven (Part A), Geographical Area Courts in New Haven (G.A. 23) and Meriden (G.A. 7), and the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters and Housing Sessions at New Haven. I previously worked at the Waterbury State’s Attorney’s Office from 1996 through 2011, the last approximately 8 years of which I spent in the Part A Court, where I successfully tried numerous felony cases to verdict. In 2013, I was promoted to Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney in charge of the Cold Case & Shooting Task Force Bureau at the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. As the supervising prosecutor, I directed a combined staff of prosecutors, inspectors, federal agents, municipal police detectives, and Connecticut Department of Correction personnel who were responsible for the investigation and prosecution of unsolved violent crimes throughout the State of Connecticut, as well as staffing local shooting task forces in Hartford and New Haven. In 2014, I received the Oliver Ellsworth Connecticut Prosecutor of the Year award. In addition to my prosecutorial duties, I have served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of New Haven School of Public Safety and Professional Studies, and as an Adjunct Lecturer at the New Haven and Waterbury Police Academies. I am a certified law enforcement instructor with the State of Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council and frequently provide training to local police departments on a variety of topics.
State’s Attorney Sharmese L. Walcott was appointed by the Criminal Justice Commission as the Hartford State’s Attorney on September 25,
2020. State’s Attorney Walcott currently serves as the chief law enforcement officer in the Judicial District of Hartford, which includes Hartford and 18 surrounding communities. The State’s Attorney oversees employees at the Judicial District courthouse in Hartford, Geographical Area courts in Enfield, Hartford and Manchester and the Juvenile Court and Community Court in Hartford. State’s Attorney Walcott joined the Division of Criminal Justice in 2007 in the Danbury Judicial District after working in private practice from 2004-2007. She moved to the Hartford Judicial District in 2018 where she served until her appointment as Executive Assistant State’s Attorney in 2020. State’s Attorney Walcott serves on the Legislative and Management Committees for the Division, is the Chair of the Commission on the Standardization for the Collection of Evidence in Sexual Assault Investigations which includes membership on the Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners Committee and Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Committee, and is a member of the Trafficking In Persons Council. State’s Attorney Walcott earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and a Juris Doctor Degree from the George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C.