CT judicial records would be more public under proposed bill
After a few collaborative tweaks, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane announced Monday his support of a bill that would require his office to annually provide all arrest and sentencing data for public view. The bill would also allow defendants to have legal representation during parole revocation hearings.
Kane told members of the Judiciary Committee during a public hearing in Hartford that he supports a revised version of the bill that was crafted with input from the Judicial Branch, the Office of Policy and Management, the Chief Public Defenders Office, and the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union.
“It’s a good bill and it gets us to a good place,” Kane said before qualifying that he’ll need additional “resources” in the form more technology staff to deal with a case management system his office hopes to pilot this summer.
“If that helps us get the resources we need, that’s a great thing,” Kane said of the bill.
The first aspect of SB 880 would require the Division of Criminal Justice to gather all information on arrests and sentencings including the demographics of the defendants, the number of continuances and pre-trial proceedings, information on plea agreements, and the number of trials.
The second would provide legal counsel through the state’s public defender system to all sentenced defendants who are facing parole revocation.
Had a similar law been in effect two decades ago, Tracie Bernardi said, she would have had a chance to receive a life-altering sentence reduction.
Bernardi, who now works in call support for Community Health Resources in Manchester, served 23 years of a 30-year sentence for felony murder. She was released in 2015.
She was 19 years old when she was involved in a Waterbury gang beating of another woman that turned deadly, she said. Even though she didn’t personally kill the woman, she participated, which led to the felony murder charge.
“They stack the charges up against you, so they told me I was facing 160 years if I went to trial,” she said. Bernardi felt she had no choice but to take a plea agreement for a 30-year prison sentence. She then found out she wasn’t allowed a sentence modification, which the prosecutor, Waterbury State’s Attorney John Connolly, noted in his files that were uncovered after his 2012 death.
“Everything was veiled,” the 45-year-old prison reform activist said. “If there was more transparency and it was known what was going, it might have been different. Right now you can’t see how many people are trying to get their sentences modified. Any bill that requires transparency helps.”
Bernardi was among the dozens of people who showed up to support the bill from the CT ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign. While the ACLU is in favor of the bill, Smart Justice campaign field organizer Gus Marks-Hamilton, who spoke for the group at the hearing, pointed out that more transparency in juvenile matters is needed.
Lack of data
“There is a lack of data about how youth are treated in the system and how and why juveniles end up in regular criminal court,” Marks-Hamilton told the committee.
The bill, which was suggested by Gov. Ned Lamont, currently does not require the Division of Criminal Justice to include information on juvenile arrests.
The new version of the bill that Kane supports shortened the laundry list of information the division is required to supply. The original version of the bill included items such as the amount of time people were spending incarcerated during pre-trial proceedings and whether the defendant utilized a professional bondsman.
Kane and the Connecticut Association of Prosecutors also cautioned that while greater transparency is the goal of the bill, in most cases, a cursory review of the data would not tell the whole story of an arrest.
The association, which represents the state’s 248 prosecutors, opposes the release of plea bargaining information, citing concerns that the public doesn’t know what factors play a role in the process including the strength of a case and the impact of the crime on victims.
“It is very important to realize that while data is very helpful for some purposes, it can also lead to misleading and erroneous conclusions if it is analyzed out of context or superficially,” Kane said in his testimony. “Bail recommendations, plea offers, sentence recommendations and indeed, even the decision whether or not to charge are based on many different but important factors, such as quality and strength of the evidence, availability of witnesses at the time the case is to be tried, original history of the defendant, and impact of the conduct on a victim. Justice and fairness must be based on the facts and circumstances of each individual case.”