This month, Senate Bill 880, An Act Increasing Fairness and Transparency in the Criminal Justice System, was signed into law by Governor Ned Lamont, making Connecticut one of the first states with a wide-ranging law requiring transparency about trends in prosecutors’ decisions. The law reflects the hard work of Smart Justice leaders and supporters, who had been calling for this change since last summer.
Passing a law, however, is just a first step toward creating transparency about prosecutors’ actions and using that information to end mass incarceration and racism in the justice system. Connecticut’s legislature can pass fantastic legislation and the Governor can sign it into law, but even the greatest civil rights or civil liberties law won’t help people if the government doesn’t follow it.
Now, it is up to all of us to make sure that prosecutors and the state completely and correctly implement this new transparency law, so everyone – the public, policymakers, people who are directly impacted by the justice system, and even prosecutors themselves – can create a better justice system.
This month, Smart Justice sent a letter to all 13 state’s attorneys in Connecticut to notify them of the new transparency law. We urged them to embrace it as a chance to use their roles to end mass incarceration and stop racism in the justice system, and we asked to meet with each of them to hear about their plans for following it.
Pieces of the law will go into effect at different times, and Smart Justice will be advocating at each step for prosecutors and the other state agencies to meet every deadline.
For the prosecutorial transparency parts of the law, this is the timeline:
- As of July 1, 2019, the Division of Criminal Justice (which oversees prosecutors) must start collecting data about prosecutors' decisions. That data must include demographic data about people accused or convicted of a crime (race, sex, ethnicity, age, and zip code), and about prosecutors’ actions on charging, plea deals, diversionary programs, and sentencing. All data about the people accused or convicted in a case and the victims in a case will be disaggregated, meaning it will be anonymized to protect their identities.
- By July 1, 2020, the state Office of Policy and Management must present a report about any prosecutorial data that it already has to the Criminal Justice Commission (the group in charge of appointing and reappointing prosecutors) and the legislature’s Judiciary Committee and publish that presentation online.
- By February 1, 2021, the Division of Criminal Justice must provide its first report about prosecutors’ decisions to the Office of Policy and Management, adding to the information the Office of Policy and Management presented in 2020.
- On or after July 1, 2021, the Office of Policy and Management must present a report about prosecutorial data, including the new data from the Division of Criminal Justice, to the Criminal Justice Commission and Judiciary Committee and publish that report online.
The law also:
- Creates a pilot program to provide legal representation for people at parole revocation hearings. The Office of the Chief Public Defender must start that pilot beginning on July 1, 2019, and report by January 1, 2021, and annually after, to the Office of Policy and Management on the cases served by the pilot program.
- Takes the first steps toward transparency about parole decisions. Under the law’s other transparency requirements, the Board of Pardons and Paroles must report by January 1, 2021 to the Office of Policy and Management about parole-related case level data, including parole hearing outcomes and demographic information.
- Starts to open up prosecutors’ appointments and reappointments to transparency and public input. As of October 1, 2019, the Criminal Justice Commission must post notices of its meetings on its website. Also as of October 1, 2019, the Criminal Justice Commission must start holding its meetings to appoint, reappoint, remove, or discipline prosecutors in the Legislative Office Building (instead of in the Division of Criminal Justice, which is where the Chief State’s Attorney’s office is located) and include opportunities for public testimony.
Prosecutors hold people’s lives in their hands, yet unless this law is implemented completely and correctly, people in our state won’t have information about their decisions. Connecticut voters, criminal justice reform advocates, and victims’ rights advocates supported the new transparency law, and it passed both chambers of the legislature with unanimous bipartisan votes. The Chief State’s Attorney’s office testified in support of the bill. As one of the first states to pass this kind of law, people across the country – including members of Congress and national experts – are also watching to see how Connecticut implements this new opportunity for prosecutorial transparency.
Smart Justice knows that everyone has a role to play in ending mass incarceration and eliminating racism in the justice system, and Connecticut’s new prosecutorial transparency law is one way for prosecutors to begin doing their part.