Last July, the ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice campaign walked into the Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney’s office. The state Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) was interviewing five candidates for the role of deputy chief state’s attorney for operations, the second most powerful prosecutor in Connecticut. Smart Justice had questions. Aside from one journalist, Smart Justice leaders were the only members of the public in the audience, and they were the only people to approach the Commission with recommended questions for the applicants.
“I think that the public should be involved in the nomination process, because of the fact that this is affecting the public in general,” said Smart Justice leader Manny Sandoval, who spent the day watching prosecutors jockey for the job. “These are people that are playing games of monopoly with people’s lives, deciding whether or not to charge certain individuals, to provide appeals, habeas corpus … The community needs to be more involved in this, and somehow we maybe need to change this process so that we can have more of a voice.”
Less than a year later, Manny’s words had become action. By June, Connecticut’s legislature passed a law to begin opening up the CJC to public input and debate, and CJC included a new, historic member: Dwayne Betts, a nationally-acclaimed memoirist, poet, attorney, Yale Law School graduate, and criminal justice reformer, became the first formerly incarcerated person to serve on the CJC.
Both changes reflected perseverance from the ACLU of Connecticut’s Smart Justice campaign, which has identified prosecutorial accountability as one key tool to accomplish the campaign’s goals of eliminating racism in the justice system and decreasing incarceration by at least 50 percent.
Connecticut is one of the only states that does not elect prosecutors, called “state’s attorneys” here. Instead, they are selected by the CJC, a body mandated by the state Constitution, whose members are nominated by the Governor and approved by the legislature.
Last fall, spurred by Sandoval’s idea, Smart Justice took to the campaign trail, where campaign leaders and organizers asked all candidates for Governor if they would, within their first 100 days in office, appoint a justice-impacted person committed to criminal justice reform to the CJC. Then-candidate Ned Lamont ultimately committed to doing so.
Following his election as Governor, Lamont created a criminal justice reform policy committee for his administration’s transition team, to which he appointed ACLU of Connecticut executive director David McGuire and Smart Justice leader Tiheba Bain. Smart Justice was a vocal force for prosecutorial transparency and accountability in that transition team work, leading the group to release a list of recommendations that included appointing a justice-impacted expert to the CJC and reforming the CJC to require its meetings take place in the legislature (rather than in the Chief State’s Attorney’s office), with formal opportunities for public comment.
The day after Lamont’s inauguration as Governor, Smart Justice reminded him of his pledge to begin changing the makeup and meeting structure of the CJC. On March 29, Lamont fulfilled his promise to Smart Justice by nominating Betts to serve on the CJC. On June 6, Betts was sworn in to his role, making him the first justice-impacted person to serve on the body in charge of selecting and reviewing Connecticut’s prosecutors.
In the legislature, a prosecutorial bill supported by Smart Justice, S.B. 880, was amended to include changes to when and how the CJC holds its meetings, and the amended version of the bill unanimously passed out of the legislature. Once signed into law by Governor Lamont, the state will have public notice requirements for CJC meetings, require the CJC to hold its meetings at the legislature instead of the Chief State’s Attorney’s office, and create the opportunity for public testimony for any CJC meeting involving appointments, reappointments, removal, or other discipline of the Chief State’s Attorney, deputy chief state’s attorney, or a state’s attorney.
Smart Justice is just getting started on its efforts to create prosecutorial transparency and accountability, and its work to reform the CJC will continue.