On November 1, Connecticut’s current Chief State’s Attorney, Kevin Kane, will retire. On Friday, October 11, the Connecticut Criminal Justice Commission held the first in a series of meetings to decide who the commission should appoint as his replacement.

As the person in charge of overseeing prosecutors in Connecticut, the Chief State’s Attorney could play a powerful role in ending mass incarceration and racism in the criminal legal system. Unfortunately, the Chief State’s Attorney has been a roadblock to these things in the past. With Connecticut poised to choose a new Chief State’s Attorney, our state has a chance to change that.

Smart Justice leaders were there in force on October 11 to show the Criminal Justice Commission that people in our state want and expect the next Chief State’s Attorney to prioritize decarceration, racial justice, and holding police accountable. We weren’t the only ones. Fellow justice-impacted people, as well as groups like the Innocence Project, Justice for Jayson, George W. Crawford Black Bar Association, NAACP, Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, RYASAP, and the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, testified about the need for Connecticut’s next top prosecutor to pursue smarter justice policies.

Smart Justice submitted written testimony to the Commission, and we testified in person. Here is what we told the Commission on October 11:

“Good afternoon Justice McDonald and Distinguished Members of the Criminal Justice Commission:

My name is Anderson Curtis, and I am a field organizer for the Smart Justice campaign with the ACLU of Connecticut. I am joined by my colleague, Claudine Fox, campaign manager for the ACLU of Connecticut.

The Smart Justice campaign is made up of leaders who have been directly impacted by the criminal legal system. Our experiences are powerful and Connecticut must listen to directly impacted people, many who could not be here today, if our state is to chart a new course.

Crime, arrests and incarceration in Connecticut are all down, but our state still incarcerates too many people, place too many people on supervision for too long, and has some of the highest racial disparities in its criminal legal system.

Every has a role in ending mass incarceration, including prosecutors and the members of the Commission that appoints them.

The Chief State’s Attorney has the power to create a Division of Criminal Justice with a budget, policies and lobbying that align to prioritizes strong communities and racial justice. We urge this Commission to prioritize the following in its search criteria and interview process for the new Chief State’s Attorney:

First, Connecticut’s next Chief State’s Attorney should establish and enforce uniform prosecution policies, guidelines, and procedures for all Judicial Districts and prosecutors in the state that prioritizes decarceration, racial justice and alternatives to incarceration. Candidates for Connecticut’s next Chief State’s Attorney should commit, on the record, to doing this and explicitly present their plans for doing so.

Smart Justice has met with ten State’s Attorneys in the past three months. Based on those conversations, it appears formal standards and guidelines for the Division of Criminal Justice do not exist. Prosecutors’ values vary greatly by judicial district.

This is a systemic problem in need of leadership from the next Chief State’s Attorney. Fair treatment under the law should not depend on someone’s zip code, yet currently two people could face wildly different charges, plea offers and diversionary programs based on their Judicial District.

Second, Connecticut’s next Chief State’s Attorney should be an active, vocal advocate for statewide laws and policies to decrease incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Candidates for Chief State’s Attorney should commit to doing this, on the record, and explicitly present their plans for doing so.

The Office of the Chief State’s Attorney is responsible for representing the Division at the Connecticut General Assembly. The next Chief State’s Attorney should support policies to increase prosecutorial transparency and accountability. Furthermore, the next Chief State’s Attorney should be an ally in the broader effort for wholesale change to the criminal legal system.

Prosecutors hold people’s lives and fates in their hands. The majority of Connecticut voters support policies to decrease incarceration by increasing rehabilitation. Evidence shows that black and LatinX people are disproportionately incarcerated in our state. Connecticut’s next Chief State’s Attorney can and should be someone who actively, vocally, and publicly embraces decarceration and racial justice, and who sets the expectation for all other prosecutors to do the same.

Thank you for your time this afternoon.”

The October 11 meeting itself was historic: for the first time in Connecticut history, members of the public were able to testify before the Criminal Justice Commission. It was a moment made possible because of advocacy from Smart Justice, a campaign led by justice-impacted people. Last year, Smart Justice sat in the audience as the Commission interviewed candidates seeking to become the Deputy Chief State’s Attorney for Operations (the second most powerful prosecutor in Connecticut). Last week, we and others were able to testify before the Commission because Smart Justice lobbied Governor Lamont and the Connecticut General Assembly to pass Public Act 19-59, requiring the Commission to meet in public at the Legislative Office Building and to take public comments on all appointments, reappointments, and discipline of key leadership positions within the Division of Criminal Justice.

Public testimony, however, is just a first step. Whether Connecticut takes the next, necessary steps to create prosecutorial transparency and accountability, and whether prosecutors become active partners in the effort to decarcerate and pursue racial justice, will depend largely on who our state, through the power vested in the Commission, chooses as its next Chief State’s Attorney. For now, the Commission has appointed an interim person to temporarily fill in, and the Commission said during last week’s meeting that it would release the job posting on October 22.

Everyone has a role in ending mass incarceration, including prosecutors and the members of the Commission that appoints them. Smart Justice will keep taking action to tell Connecticut to choose a next Chief State’s Attorney who will vocally, actively work to end mass incarceration and racism in the justice system.