State's Attorneys are among the most powerful and least accountable actors in Connecticut's criminal legal system. While they hold people's lives in their hands, and their decisions can mean the difference between increasing mass incarceration and systemic racism or not, they are largely accountable only to themselves. This year, Connecticut's legislature is considering a bill, S.B. 307, that would start holding State's Attorneys accountable to commonsense things like evidence-based, external performance reviews. Here are five reasons why legislators must pass that bill:
1. They hold people's lives in their hands.
State's Attorneys can either drive mass incarceration and racism, or not. They set the standards for every judicial district, for every part of a case that a prosecutor touches. From deciding whether to pursue charges brought by police; to whether to seek diversionary programs; to bail, plea, and sentencing recommendations; they can make the difference between people facing bogus charges, cruel sentences, systemic racism, or not.
More than 90% of cases in the U.S. end in plea agreements. This means prosecutors, not judges, are most often deciding people's fates.
2. They have no real oversight.
State's Attorneys can make decisions about people's lives for nearly a decade without external oversight. They only face a public reappointment hearing every 8 years -- the only chance for external review of their job performance. They have no data-driven performance evaluations. They have no meaningful code of ethics. They’ve been required for decades to have statewide policies on parts of the criminal case process, and they haven’t created them. The Criminal Justice Commission (the entity tasked with appointing State's Attorneys) is housed within the Division of Criminal Justice, the very department it is supposed to oversee, and it has no meaningful budget of its own. It can't investigate or discipline the Chief State's Attorney -- it can only hire or fire them -- meaning it couldn't, on its own, conduct an investigation like the recent one into the Chief State's Attorney's hiring of a Connecticut budget official's daughter.
3. Lack of accountability enables racism.
Connecticut has been collecting data on prosecutors' behavior for more than a year. That data shows that every part of Connecticut has racial disparities in convictions. Because of systemic racism, in every GA court, Black people are convicted more often than white people. In Stamford, 47% of Black people accused of a crime were convicted, compared to 30% of whites. In Rockville, 56% of Latinx people accused of a crime were convicted, compared to 36% of whites. State's Attorneys set the examples and tones for their entire judicial districts and could take steps to end this systemic racism, but they aren't. In fact, this kind of racism has been replete in Connecticut's criminal legal system for years. In 2014, Stamford University expert John Donohue looked at how Connecticut's State's Attorney system created arbitrariness and discrimination in the death penalty. "In effect, it was the luck of the draw on the prosecutor and not the crime that was the decisive factor in averting a death sentence," he wrote. This is the same State's Attorney system we have today.
4. Lack of accountability enables corruption.
This year, we saw once again how political the State's Attorney system is. “Might need it to keep them [State's Attorneys] happy so they don’t oppose me at reappointment," wrote Chief State's Attorney Richard Colangelo while lobbying a state budget official for raises for himself and other State's Attorneys. At the same time, he was actively opposing last year's State's Attorney accountability legislation. Reappointments should be about evidence-based job performance. Not quid pro quos.
5. Lack of accountability means lack of fairness.
Because every State's Attorney has different rules and attitudes across judicial districts, treatment in Connecticut's criminal legal system depends on your zip code. Whether you're a person accused of a crime, a survivor of harm, or a loved one of either, it's still about the "luck of the draw" of the prosecutor, not fairness. For example, people convicted of drug offenses are 2.4 times more likely more likely to get prison sentences in some parts of Connecticut than in others. State's Attorneys could set the tone by requiring public health solutions instead of harsh sentences. But that's not the case across the state.