Razel Suansing, Contributing Photographer

As conversations about criminal justice reform continue, a new state Senate bill would establish prosecutor accountability measures if passed.

A Wednesday Connecticut Senate Judiciary Committee hearing featured debate on Connecticut Senate Bill No. 1018. If approved, the bill would create a board that would construct standards by which state-appointed prosecutors sentence and charge defendants. It would also assess each of these prosecutors on how well they abide by the standards. There is currently no statewide standard by which prosecutors are expected to charge or sentence defendants. The prosecutors would be assessed based on data such as median probation time, total prison admissions and compliance with the standards set by the board. 

“The fact that [prosecutors] have essentially no accountability under the law is a big handicap that folks who are convicted of a crime, accused of a crime, face.” New Haven civil rights attorney Alex Taubes LAW ’15 told the News about the bill.

According to Taubes, prosecutors have unparalleled influence over how defendants are punished, in part because they most often set the terms of plea deals. Prosecutors thus decide how long a cooperating defendant who plans to plead guilty should serve time in jail. If a plea deal is rejected, the defendant’s jail sentence is often increased significantly.

The current degree of influence prosecutors have, Taubes said, needs to be further scrutinized. Connecticut provides incarcerated people with limited options for early release. The governor cannot pardon individuals and the state Board of Parole and Pardons has not commuted any sentences since the beginning of the pandemic. Thus, incarcerated individuals are often forced to appeal to prosecutors for an early release. Taubes said that this presents a conflict of interest.

“A person who was responsible for putting this person in prison in the first place is supposed to be the judge of whether they have done enough in prison, spent enough time in prison that they are deserving of an early release,” Taubes said. 

Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo, who oversees the state’s criminal cases, has voiced his opposition to the bill, suggesting that the bill would judge state prosecutors for factors out of their control, like the number of state-supported diversionary programs — community service programs as well as drug- and alcohol-related education — in their jurisdiction and the number of people that complete those programs.

Colangelo told the state Senate committee that ethical considerations guide prosecutor decisions on how to charge defendants. He added that within the judicial system there is a natural system of “checks and balances” between prosecutors, defendants’ lawyers and judges.

“If I say someone should go to jail for 5 years, and their defense lawyer says no you’re being crazy, and we go to judge and the judge says no,’ it’s their first offense five years, that’s never gonna happen, I’ll give him probation,’” Colangelo said in the hearing. “That’s the way the judicial process works with checks and balances that will put a check on prosecutors that they are becoming overly aggressive.”

Another point of contention is the length of prosecutorial terms, which are currently eight years, and based on appointments. The bill would cut down the term to five years.

Colangelo said that the constitutional amendments to change the terms will not give prosecutors enough time to assess what the populations in their jurisdiction want them to do. 

This bill, Taubes said, has the ability to cripple the aspects of the judicial system that have contributed to the current levels of mass incarceration. 

Gary Winfield of New Haven, a state senator who sits on the committee that heard the bill, shared a similar view. He told his colleagues on Wednesday that he worries that the lack of standards in the prosecutorial process exacerbate mass incarceration. 

He asked Colangelo, “How easy is it to go to jail?”

Colangelo said that he believed that it is not as “easy” as it was decades ago because prosecutorial culture has changed.

“Looking back at my early career, I agree with the assessment of the things that I was doing,” Colangelo said. “If I was looking at that case, I probably wouldn’t [sentence them to jail]. It’s a change in mindset. It’s a change in philosophy. It’s a change in what we’re doing as prosecutors. It has a lot of the era that we were in back then.”

Colangelo told the committee that there should not be a standard policy on how to prosecute cases because each district has its own “values.” He gave the example of how different prosecutors rule on drug cases, stating how a homeless individual relieving themselves on a sidewalk in Stamford would be a different case to a college student relieving themselves at the University of Connecticut.

Winfield pressed Colangelo on the claim that standards cannot be created per judicial district because each district has specific “values.” Winfield said in response that the situations Colangelo presented do not pose different values but merely presented different circumstances.

Colangelo also added that the performance of state attorneys could not be codified to sets of data and that it is difficult to use a standard set of policies for differing cases.

“[If you] review me on my people’s adherence to these policies and that’s gonna be tied to my performance review or appraisal and ultimately my reappointment as a state’s attorney, I’m gonna make sure that they’re strictly abiding by these guidelines,” Colangelo said. “And if they want to give someone a break that’s adhering to these policies, I’m going to be the one that’s gonna be graded against me on.”

The bill was sponsored by representatives David Michel and Anne M. Hughes.

Razel Suansing | razel.suansing@yale.edu