A bill that would require state’s attorneys to appear annually before the Criminal Justice Commission to comment on data collection and provide testimony will go to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk following a Senate vote on May 31.
The Senate voted 88 to 56, with 7 members not voting, to pass SB 1070 in concurrence with the House, which voted to approve the bill on May 17.
The bill, entitled “An Act Concerning Prosecutorial Accountability,” adds a section to existing statutes relating to data required to be collected by the Division of Criminal Justice, in consultation with the Judicial Branch, the Department of Correction, and the Criminal Justice Information Board. That information includes disaggregated case level data on categories such as arrests, arraignments, continuances, and other statistics related to the disposition of criminal trials involving individuals over the age of 18.
Under SB 1070, each state’s attorney will have to appear before the Criminal Justice Commission annually to comment on this data beginning on October 1, 2023.
Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, introduced the bill, stating that its title is “somewhat misleading.”
“It claims it’s a bill all about prosecutorial accountability, and certainly there have been more robust proposals in the Judiciary Committee in years past to for example shorten the term of office for state’s attorneys or to limit their charging authority and the like. None of that is in this bill.” Stafstrom said.
He continued, stating the bill “does one very simple, straightforward thing.”
“What it does is it requires the 13 state’s attorneys from around our state to appear once our year before the Criminal Justice Commission, who by the Constitution is empowered to independently oversee the actions of the Department of Criminal Justice, to testify before that commission.” Stafstrom added. He also noted that while current law requires data about court cases to be collected, it doesn’t currently require the commission to meet with state’s attorneys to do a “performance review” and review the data for their geographical area.
“This bill changes that, requires those annual performance reviews and nothing further.” Stafstrom concluded.
Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, rose to speak in opposition to the bill and to offer an amendment.
“This is one of the bills that we’ll see over the coming days that once again goes after those individuals that are charged with, they’re part of the system that is supposed to protect us from crime. There are forces that don’t want anyone to go to jail, no matter what.” Fishbein said by way of introductory remarks.
“The attack that we see to this legislation goes after prosecutors. Now there are portions of this data collection that may make sense. In fact, I believe when this data collection was originally debated in the Judiciary Committee four years ago, I was the one that asked to have zip codes be part of the data collection. But there’s a lot of areas in here that it’s clear that those that are advocates are looking for these things.” Fishbein continued.
He stated that no two arrests are exactly alike, but that the legislation treated arrests like they are all the same, which he characterized as “improper” and “not fair” to the system or to victims. Fishbein also said that no two prosecutors are the same.
“And to say to Prosecutor A compared to Prosecutor B that you may be doing your job in a harsher way, or a softer way is improper and that’s essentially what we have here. We have data collection but then we have a mandate, and it’s not a municipal mandate. It’s a personal mandate that the prosecutors come to the commission and stand behind the numbers, not the files, the numbers. And that’s the point that must be taken away from this,” Fishbein said, adding that he thought there was an “aspect of shaming” to the bill. He also stated that public offenders are not required to face similar questions and are not “put on trial.”
Fishbein offered an amendment that would have inserted the word “may” into the bill. The version of the bill the House was debating stated “The Criminal Justice Commission shall require” state’s attorneys to appear annually. Fishbein’s amendment would have changed “shall” to “may,” replacing the requirement with an option. According to Fishbein, the change would have allowed “that discretion I was just talking about.”
Stafstrom rose in opposition to the amendment and stated that he believed it addressed the concerns Fishbein had laid out.
“I think the reason for these interviews, the reason for individual’s states attorneys to come before the commission, is frankly to be able to address the exact concerns the ranking member laid out. As he said, not every geographical area is the same. The data may not be the same. But we currently collect that data and the data is presented in a report and there may be distinctions or differences that are apparent on the face of the data, that is apparent from the numbers we’re currently collecting. Providing for these interviews of state’s attorneys are precisely the way you explain those discrepancies, you explain those differences and what’s going on in one part of the state, in one geographical area as opposed to another.” Stafstrom said, adding that the interviews were not necessarily a grilling and could be an opportunity for commendations.
Several other Republican House members also rose to speak in support of Fishbein’s amendment, including Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, who argued that requiring state’s attorneys to appear annually would require preparation, which would take time away from the rest of their job. Howard further argued that the state’s courts are already backed up and the bill would not be the most significant use of time by the state’s attorneys.
The amendment failed by a vote of 52 to 89, with 10 members not voting.
Following the vote on the amendment, Fishbein questioned Stafstrom further about the bill and several Republican members rose to speak in opposition before a roll call vote was called.
Following the House vote, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Connecticut issued a press release applauding the move.
“This bill is a critical step toward transparency and accountability for public officials who hold people’s lives in their hands, and who have the power to make mass incarceration and systemic racism better or worse. As gatekeepers to the criminal legal system, State’s Attorneys have the ability to interrupt racism and bigotry, and it’s imperative that our state hold them accountable to doing so. Prosecutorial accountability is about making sure that State’s Attorneys don’t treat someone differently just because of their race, zip code, or how much money they have.” said ACLU of Connecticut campaign manager Gus Marks-Hamilton.