On Monday, Smart Justice leader AnnMarie Stockmeyer and I were honored to attend a policy conversation, “Data Driven Justice: Prosecutorial Accountability and Transparency,” at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. We had been invited by U.S. Representative Alma Adams of North Carolina, who had learned about Smart Justice’s success in Connecticut with the passage of SB 880, “An Act Increasing Fairness and Transparency in the Criminal Justice System.”
Once signed into law by Governor Lamont, SB 880, which mandates collection and reporting of prosecutors’ decisions, will be the first law of its kind in the nation. After nearly a year of advocacy and lobbying from Smart Justice leaders, SB 880 passed unanimously out of Connecticut’s General Assembly during the 2019 legislative session.
During the D.C. conversation, Representative Adams hoped to learn how Connecticut’s progress could become a model for potential federal legislation to create prosecutorial transparency.
As some of the most powerful people in the criminal justice system, prosecutors hold people’s lives in their hands. Prosecutors decide whether to keep, change, or drop a charge against someone who is accused of a crime; and whether to recommend bail, offer a plea bargain, or provide someone with the chance to participate in a diversionary program like drug treatment instead of sending them to prison. This is true not only in Connecticut, but across the country, where 95 percent of criminal cases end in plea deals, meaning most of the time it is prosecutors, not judges or juries, that decide how a case is resolved. Despite this almost unlimited power, up to now, prosecutors have made these decisions with little transparency or accountability.
SB 880 was proposed by Governor Ned Lamont at the beginning of 2019 and reflected a campaign trail promise he made to the ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice campaign, an initiative led by people who have been directly impacted by the justice system, to collect and make public statistics about prosecutorial decision-making. The bill requires the Connecticut State Division of Criminal Justice, which employs prosecutors (called State’s Attorneys in Connecticut) to report data, including demographic data, about people accused or convicted of a crime, and about prosecutor’s actions on charging, plea deals, diversionary programs and sentencing.
AnnMarie and I were proud to take our knowledge and experience on the road to the nation’s capitol and talk about the work we had done to make prosecutorial transparency a reality in Connecticut. At the invitation of Representative Adams, Kevin Lawlor, Connecticut’s Deputy Chief State’s Attorney, spoke in support of prosecutorial transparency on the panel in D.C., and Marc Pelka, Connecticut's Undersecretary of Criminal Justice Policy and Planning, also attended the conversation. Prosecutors and public officials who support criminal justice reform that is real and meaningful can be a powerful force for making long-overdue changes to end mass incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system.
The Smart Justice campaign is grounded in the knowledge that the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Only together can we create a justice system that is safer and fairer for everyone.
After meeting with and speaking with people in D.C. about how Smart Justice pushed SB 880 forward in Connecticut, AnnMarie said, “I witnessed something incredibly remarkable on this visit. I watched a small state lead a conversation about the critical role of prosecutors and the importance of transparency in the justice system on Capitol Hill. Today was an opportunity for people across the country impacted by the justice system to stand up, lead the charge and demand change to create a better justice system.”