State's Attorneys' decisions can either perpetuate or work to end mass incarceration and systemic racism in the criminal legal system. Yet without accountability systems for State's Attorneys, there are wide racial and geographic disparities in Connecticut's criminal legal system. On March 9, 2022, Smart Justice leader Shelby Henderson testified in support of S.B. 307, a bill to start changing that. Here is her testimony:
Hello Senator Winfield, Representative Stafstrom, ranking members Senator Kissel, Representative Fishbein and distinguished members of the committee.
My name is Shelby Henderson; I am a formerly incarcerated person, a second-year law student studying for a dual MPA/JD degree, and I am a Smart Justice Leader with the ACLU of Connecticut. I am here to testify in support of SB 307 “An Act Concerning Accountability for State’s Attorneys.”
In every single GA court in Connecticut, Black people are convicted more often than white people. There is not a single GA court in Connecticut without a racial disparity in conviction rates. The widest disparities are in Stamford and Norwalk. Prosecutors hold people’s lives in their hands, but until recently they have been acting in the dark with little if any public evaluations or public accountability.
Prosecutors linger as the most powerful actors in the criminal legal system. Prosecutors carry broad, if not almost boundless, discretion in the decisions that control both the process of plea bargains and what criminal charges are brought against a defendant. The actions of prosecutors, not judges, effectively predetermine the outcome of most criminal cases. And in Connecticut that means Black residents are more likely to receive harsher sentences.
Whether or not prosecutors are intentionally or unconsciously discriminating against defendants of color their decisions, even legitimate race-neutral decisions may be influenced by unconscious racism and as a result perpetuate racial disparities.
Which is why we must first dispel the illusion that we are colorblind in our decision making, as crucial first step to mitigating the impact of implicit racial bias.
No one wants to be called racist, and when the bias is unconscious, “racist” may not be a fair label. So please note, I am not here today to shame prosecutors, as pointing fingers does nothing to solve the problem.
In McCleskey v. Kemp, a United States Supreme Court case, the court reasoned that it is the responsibility of state legislatures to respond to statistical evidence showing a racial disparity in criminal sentencing.
It is the responsibility of this legislature to ensure Connecticut’s criminal legal system will treat everyone fairly no matter where they live, their education, their wealth, or their race. I believe in accountability for Connecticut’s State’s Attorneys, some of the most powerful actors in the criminal legal system.
We need to create real accountability and oversight in our criminal legal system, which is why I am asking the members of this committee to pass this bill. The people of Connecticut deserve a better system.
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 in Connecticut where there are wide racial disparities in conviction rates.
I strongly support how this bill will assign a task force to create uniform policies and procedures so that justice is not determined by a person’s zip code.
I strongly support how this bill will give the Criminal Justice Commission independence.
I strongly support how this bill will create biennial performance evaluations for every State’s Attorney.
I strongly support how this bill will create an overdue ethics policy for prosecutors in line with national policies and professional standards.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to my testimony.