Last year, Connecticut’s criminal justice commission appointed Richard Colangelo as the new Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney, a role with a huge amount of power over the direction of prosecution in our state and with a significant lobbying presence at the Capitol. The Chief State’s Attorney is the face of the Division of Criminal Justice (the agency that oversees all prosecutors in Connecticut) at the legislature, and that person regularly weighs in with positions regarding legislation and budgetary proposals, including in legislative testimony and in interviews with the press. Colangelo was appointed for one year, to finish the remainder of his predecessor’s term. Now, the Criminal Justice Commission will consider Colangelo for reappointment to a full term of five (three years less than those of State’s Attorneys).
During a virtual public hearing tomorrow (May 13, 2021), the Criminal Justice Commission will interview Colangelo about his tenure.
The ACLU of Connecticut, including the Smart Justice campaign, doesn’t endorse or oppose applicants for the Chief State's Attorney position, and we aren’t endorsing anyone now. Smart Justice believes that Connecticut should join the wave of states across the country with prosecutors who are pursuing real justice and public safety by seeking decarceration and the end of racism in the criminal legal system. We believe everyone has a role in ending mass incarceration, and the Chief State’s Attorney must step into that role.
So, just as we did when six people were vying to become the next Chief State’s Attorney, we sent Colangelo a survey to gather his views on critical questions about police accountability, prosecutorial accountability and transparency, decarceration, and racial justice. We thank Colangelo for completing the survey, because providing on-the-record answers to members of the public is a basic requirement of public leadership.
Here is what we learned.
There were some glimmers of hope among his responses. For example, although his answer was not completely clear, he seemed to support ensuring the Inspector General is able to act independently from the Chief State’s Attorney when investigating police uses of force.
But there were also some deeply disappointing answers. For example, Colangelo only provided clear yes or no answers to two survey questions – and those two answers were “no’s” on two critical issues that a reform-minded prosecutor would support. It is a troubling sign that, after a year in the powerful role of Chief State's Attorney, Colangelo provided even fewer clear “yes” or “no” answers regarding his views than he did in the survey before he assumed the position.
In response to questions about police accountability, the potentially good news is that, although his answer was not completely clear, he seemed to support ensuring the Inspector General is able to act independently from the Chief State’s Attorney when investigating police uses of force (question 6). If the newly created Inspector General position is to have any chance at beginning to hold police accountable, they must be independent from other prosecutors, who work frequently with police. In more troubling news, Colangelo did not commit to supporting police accountability legislation to make Connecticut’s police use of force standard stricter, as he said the decision was the legislature’s (question 7). The Chief State’s Attorney, however, has a significant lobbying and advocacy presence at the legislature and frequently weighs in regarding legislation, and Colangelo provided clear “no” responses in survey questions regarding other potential legislation, including legislation considered by the legislature in this session. When asked about Brady Lists (questions 8 and 9), Colangelo also did not provide a clear response, and instead described the Division of Criminal Justice’s current policy, which has significant loopholes and relies on police policing themselves. He did not respond at all to the question of whether he would support the creation of a Brady policy that relies on credible sources other than police to identify and keep track of police with histories that would preclude them from testifying in cases – something prosecutors in other states do.
On racial justice, Colangelo was noncommittal. In response to a question about training prosecutors on topics including collateral consequences of a record, victim and trauma-informed policies, alternatives to incarceration, and racial bias, he indicated support for training overall and for “implicit bias, alternative dispositions and prosecutor wellness” training. When asked if he would support biennial performance evaluations of State’s Attorneys based on data from Connecticut’s prosecutorial transparency law (data meant to alert the Criminal Justice Commission if State’s Attorneys are displaying racial bias in their decisions), Colangelo did not respond but instead pointed to his support of legislation passed this year, which requires biennial performance evaluations but does not require those to be based on data, including that critical data around potential racial bias. When asked if he would support legislation to end collateral consequences of a criminal record – an issue that, because of systemic racism in the criminal legal system, disproportionately harms Black and Latinx people in Connecticut – Colangelo did not take a position and instead demurred to the legislature. The Chief State’s Attorney, however, has a significant lobbying and advocacy presence at the legislature and frequently weighs in regarding legislation, and Colangelo provided clear “no” responses in survey questions regarding other potential legislation.
Questions about the criminal legal system are ultimately all questions of racial justice. Because of systemic racism, more than 70 percent of people incarcerated in Connecticut are Black or Latinx, and each of them had their lives touched by a prosecutor. Also because of systemic racism, police violence is the sixth-leading cause of death among young Black men in the United States, and prosecutors play a role in determining whether police are held accountable for that violence. When looking at Colangelo’s answers to each of the questions in this survey, it’s important to keep in mind that a lack of commitment to policies on prosecutorial accountability and transparency, decarceration, or police accountability is therefore also a lack of responsiveness to racial justice.
Regarding prosecutorial accountability and transparency, the small positive piece is that Colangelo highlighted his support for some form of biennial performance evaluation of State’s Attorneys, but his response unfortunately was not clear (question 2). Colangelo highlighted his support for a recently passed law, but that law only requires that the Chief State’s Attorney conduct biennial “merit and performance” evaluations of State’s Attorneys and send the results of those evaluations to the Criminal Justice Commission (the body that appoints and reappoints prosecutors). That law does not have specifics about how “merit and performance” are determined, and the evaluations are ultimately one prosecutor (the Chief State’s Attorney) evaluating other prosecutors. Colangelo did not respond to our survey question of whether he would support biennial performance evaluations conducted by the Criminal Justice Commission or for those performance evaluations to be based on data about whether prosecutors are treating people fairly. In more disturbing news, the only survey questions that Colangelo clearly answered with a “yes” or “no” were “no’s” on prosecutorial accountability. Colangelo continued to oppose reducing State’s Attorneys’ term lengths from 8 years (an extreme outlier in the country and longer than the Chief State’s Attorney’s own term length) to four years (question 4). He also backtracked on his previous survey response by indicating he would oppose creating statewide standard policies for prosecutors, which would create a fairer criminal legal system that doesn’t depend on zip code (question 4).
When it comes to decarceration, Colangelo was noncommittal. When asked if he would support legislation to modernize Connecticut’s criminal code, he demurred to the legislature (question 5). He did the same when asked if he would support legislation to end collateral consequences of a criminal record. The Chief State’s Attorney’s office is one of the most powerful lobbying factors at the legislature. In addition, the public has a right to know where the most powerful prosecutor in the state stands on critical issues around the future of prosecution. Colangelo also provided clear “no” responses in survey questions regarding other potential legislation, including legislation considered by the legislature in this session.
It is worth remembering that in his first year, Colangelo went back on some accountability commitments he made when he was seeking the role of Chief State’s Attorney. In response to Smart Justice’s survey before his appointment last year, for instance, stated that he would support assigning prosecutors in every judicial district to ensure that every charge is supported by probable cause before filing with the court (something already required by the existing court rules for prosecutors, in Practice Book § 36-12), by saying “yes, we are already doing this now.” But once he became Chief State’s Attorney, he publicly opposed requiring prosecutors to follow that policy, which is supposed to serve as a check on police over-charging people during arrests.
As Chief State’s Attorney, he also opposed a bill that would have increased prosecutorial accountability. In opposing the bill’s proposal for statewide standard policies for prosecutors across all 13 Judicial Districts and the bill’s proposal to create biennial, data-driven performance evaluations for all 13 State’s Attorneys, Colangelo again contradicted commitments he had made in Smart Justice’s survey prior to his appointment as Chief State’s Attorney (in response to the last survey’s question about whether he would support the creation of standard policies and procedures, Colangelo simply responded “Yes;” when asked about biennial performance evaluations, he had also responded “Yes). In addition, when we asked through a Freedom of Information request for Colangelo to provide a “Brady List” of police whose histories of lying or other misconduct excluded them from testifying in criminal cases, Colangelo’s office responded that they did not keep such a list; in the previous survey before his appointment to Chief State’s Attorney, when asked if he would “commit to holding police accountable by (a) creating a statewide “Brady List” of police officers excluded from testifying in criminal cases because of a proven history of lying or other professional or criminal misconduct, Colangelo had responded, “Yes, this information is gathered for cases at the present time,” implying that he would support the creation of a Brady List.
We hope that Colangelo, if reappointed, begins stepping into his role to end mass incarceration and to end racism in the criminal legal system. Smart Justice will continue working to hold him accountable to try to make sure he does.
Because no matter who is in the role, Connecticut’s next Chief State’s Attorney has a responsibility to end mass incarceration and racism in the criminal legal system.
You can see a breakdown of Colangelo's responses in our quick guide, or read the full survey and his complete responses.