The Connecticut Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) announced this week that it would hold a meeting on September 24, 2020, to interview four candidates for the position of Hartford State's Attorney. The ACLU of Connecticut is not taking a position for or against any particular applicant, but we do believe whoever is chosen to become the next State's Attorney for the Hartford Judicial District must be committed to achieving decarceration and reducing systemic racial inequities, including by responding to community-expressed needs for restorative justice practices and sentence modification responsiveness. To that end, the ACLU of Connecticut submitted the following written testimony to the CJC:
Chairperson McDonald and distinguished members of the Criminal Justice Commission:
My name is Claudine Fox, and I am the campaign manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT). I am here to testify on behalf of the Smart Justice campaign regarding the appointment of a new of State’s Attorney for the Hartford Judicial District. The ACLU-CT is not here to testify for or against any particular applicant, but instead to highlight what role the State’s Attorney for the Hartford Judicial District should serve and to request that this Criminal Justice Commission appoint a State’s Attorney who will fill that role.
The Hartford Judicial District is consistently in the top two busiest judicial districts in the state. It is also one of the most diverse judicial districts in the state. The capitol of the state, of course, lies in the Hartford Judicial District. For all these reasons and more, the Hartford Judicial District has an outsized role in criminal legal matters. The policies and tone set by the Hartford Judicial District may be reflected in the other judicial districts across the state. It is thus especially important for the State’s Attorney appointed for this Judicial District to have a broad commitment to reducing reliance on incarceration and taking affirmative steps to stop racial disparities and racism in criminal justice outcomes. This commitment should include clearly delineated beliefs on how to handle low-level charges, drug offenses, sex work, technical parole violations, children involved in the criminal-legal system, and cases with potential immigration consequences. These beliefs should translate into policies, like charging, plea bargaining, and sentencing guidance for line-level prosecutors, expansive discovery practices, bail procedures, and post-conviction cooperation with people adjudicated guilty.
Prosecutors are major drivers of mass incarceration – a fact that has become even more apparent during COVID-19. Prison populations have fallen dramatically since March, but that is “overwhelmingly the result of fewer prisoners entering the system.” Indeed, not one person was sentenced for a criminal conviction in April. Unsurprisingly, the reduced inflow into Connecticut prisons benefited white people at the expense of Black and Latinx people – the populations of white incarcerated people dropped by 19%, compared with a reduction of only 14% among Black and Latinx incarcerated people. The data since COVID show three things: Connecticut State’s Attorneys have an underappreciated but enormous impact on mass incarceration, State’s Attorneys could end mass incarceration in the short-term if they chose to, and prosecution is structured to disproportionately harm Black and Latinx people unless there are planned, affirmative steps to ensure equitable outcomes. The new State’s Attorney for the Hartford Judicial District must acknowledge these structural truths about their role and be prepared to maximize their role in achieving decarceration and reducing systemic racial inequities.
A State’s Attorney with a vision and a plan for ending mass incarceration and racist outcomes in the Judicial District would be in line with the desires of the communities served by the Hartford Judicial District. Individuals who live in the Hartford Judicial District testified at the October 11, 2019 hearing on the role of the Chief State’s Attorney and opined that there was a need for addressing miscarriages of justice and for a greater focus on restorative justice initiatives. Community organizations are likewise focused on alternatives to incarceration and different models of prosecution. The State’s Attorney for Hartford must be responsive to these organic demands right now, and throughout the term of their appointment.
Incarcerated people are also a community that a State’s Attorney must be responsive to. Under previous State’s Attorneys, the Hartford Judicial District has been unresponsive to sentence modification requests from incarcerated people, which has caused unreasonable delays in some instances. Under Connecticut law, the only way a person sentenced to more than three years’ incarceration can even access the sentence modification process is with the State’s Attorney’s approval. That means that an incarcerated person cannot even make their case for sentence modification to the court unless the State’s Attorney okays it. It is true that people serving longer sentences have been found guilty of committing serious crimes, but the current process relies too heavily on the offense of conviction – something a person cannot change after conviction – and does not give enough credit to the factors within a person’s control, such as their practices and work since incarceration. The new Hartford Judicial District State’s Attorney must be open to restorative justice practices that include sentence modifications. Since Black and Latinx people are disproportionately serving longer sentences, justice in sentence modifications is also a way to reducing racial disparities in both incarceration and releases. State’s Attorneys must recognize that ending mass incarceration requires them to look back on who they have punished and make corrections when appropriate.
For years, Hartford has been underserved by the Division of Criminal Justice. Previous State’s Attorneys have failed to pursue justice for people hurt or killed by police. Seventeen of the eighty-one uses of deadly force – 21 percent – investigated by the Division of Criminal Justice since 2001 have occurred in the Hartford Judicial District. Hartford Judicial District is one of thirteen judicial districts, but its residents represent over 1/5 of investigated police uses of deadly force in Connecticut. Only one of those investigations resulted in a finding that the police violence was unjustified – and that was in 2006. That means that State Attorneys have told 16 people, 16 families, in the Hartford Judicial District that they would not seek redress for their family member who was killed by police. A State’s Attorney for this Judicial District must recognize the outsized police violence faced by the people that person is serving. While the State’s Attorney will not be investigating those incidents, that knowledge should nonetheless inform the State’s Attorney’s approach and policies within the Judicial District.
A new State’s Attorney in the Hartford Judicial District will be appointed for an eight-year term. During that time, there will be massive shifts in the public understanding of what criminal justice is and how it can be reformed. The new State’s Attorney should not only be responsive to these changes but should also be ahead of the curve. The State’s Attorney must better serve the Hartford Judicial District community better than it has been served in the past. The Criminal Justice Commission needs to take all these factors into consideration as it appoints a new State’s Attorney for the Hartford Judicial District.