Prosecutors are among the most powerful but least accountable actors in the criminal legal system. During a Judiciary Committee hearing, Smart Justice leader Shelby Henderson testified in support of S.B. 1018, An Act Concerning Prosecutorial Accountability, which could start to change that (Kelly McConney Moore, the ACLU of Connecticut's interim senior policy counsel, also testified in support of the bill, and you can read her testimony here).
This is what Shelby Henderson, ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice leader, told the committee:
Good day Senator Winfield, Representative Stafstrom, ranking members Kissel and Fishbein, and distinguished members of the Judiciary Committee.
My name is Shelby Henderson; I am a Smart Justice Leader with the ACLU of Connecticut. I am studying for a dual MPA/Law degree at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and City University of New York School of Law. I am a formerly incarcerated person. And I believe that Connecticut deserves a criminal legal system that will treat everyone fairly no matter where they live. I believe in accountability.
State’s Attorneys are among the most powerful actors in Connecticut’s criminal legal system, but the least accountable. Irrespective of evidence States Attorneys can add additional charges, drop charges, dismiss a case, and they even have discretion when entering plea bargains—all without oversight or performance evaluation. Which is why it is reasonable to expect public servants – and that’s what State’s Attorneys are: they serve the public – it is reasonable to expect public servants to have some form of performance evaluation and accountability. There is no reason State’s Attorneys should be exempt from public accountability. Their job is to represent the interests of the people of Connecticut. All of Connecticut: that includes incarcerated and formally incarcerated individuals. People like me.
How do I know if the State’s Attorney in the judicial district that I live are fairly implementing justice? Or more appropriately, the question is…how would you know if they were not? Right now, we have no way of measuring States Attorneys performance. The only way I could comment on their work is once every eight years when a State’s Attorney is up for an appointment. It is necessary to require State’s Attorneys to be accountable for the decisions they make. If Connecticut is going to prioritize racial justice and fairness, we have to know whether there are patterns of discriminatory sentencing or patterns of overly harsh charges or punishments in the decision’s prosecutors are making, and we need to hold prosecutors accountable if they are discriminating pursuing punishment instead of justice. We must hold CT to higher standards then the USSC Disparate impact and Mcklessly decision.
Senate Bill 1018 “An Act Concerning Prosecutorial Accountability” is necessary to achieve equal justice for residents of all parts of Connecticut. Holding State’s Attorneys accountable to standards for fairness and anti-discrimination is exactly what Senate Bill 1018 proposes. A minimum request considering prosecutors unparalleled discretion.
Prosecutors hold people’s lives in their hands. Accountability for their powerful role in the criminal legal system is long overdue. Right now, we are flying blind because there are no data-driven performance evaluations of state’s attorneys. Because of this, we have ended up with a system where decisions about things such as bail and plea bargains are completely different from district to district. Connecticut deserves a system that will treat everyone fairly, no matter where you live.
We need to change our system, which is why I am asking the members of this committee to pass Senate Bill 1018, without this bill we would essentially perpetuate racial disparities in the justice system and allow unconscious and conscious racial biases to flourish. The residents of CT deserve more. Thank you for listening to my testimony and I welcome any questions you may have.