Connecticut residents for the first time have a chance to help the state appoint its top prosecutor, thanks to a new law that aims to make the criminal justice system more transparent.
Those interested in criminal justice can weigh in on the search for the next chief state’s attorney at a forum in the Legislative Office Building this afternoon, from 2 to 5 p.m.
“Many people are concerned that without a robust public process, there is a greater chance of having skepticism or misapprehensions about the trustworthiness of the Division of Criminal Justice,” said Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald, chair of the Criminal Justice Commission. “Trust and confidence in the individuals who hold these offices will be greatly enhanced by an open and robust public process.”
The Criminal Justice Commission is in charge of appointing the chief state’s attorney, an enormously powerful position that will be vacant come November when head prosecutor Kevin Kane retires.
The chief state’s attorney plays an important role in the crafting of criminal justice policies. He or she is also responsible for the Division of Criminal Justice’s administrative functions like its budget, and providing support to the 13 state’s attorneys. Kane has held the position since 2006, making him the longest-serving chief state’s attorney of the seven men who have occupied the office since it was created in 1973.
Connecticut is one of a handful of states where prosecutors are appointed, not elected. Thanks to Senate Bill 880, the commission must hold its public meetings to appoint, reappoint, discipline or remove prosecutors in the Legislative Office Building, and offer opportunities for public testimony.
Before the public forum on the chief state’s attorney, the commission will publicly interview candidates to be the next state’s attorney for the Litchfield Judicial District. Those interviews will take place at 9 a.m. in room 1A of the Legislative Office Building.
McDonald said the passage of S.B. 880 last legislative session shows that lawmakers and the governor recognize the authority, power and influence of state’s attorneys and the chief state’s attorney, and that “positions of that power and discretion should be subject to review not only by the appointing authority, but also by the public at large, who will be interacting with those officials.”
The commission has not yet advertised the job. Friday’s public forum will give those who are considering throwing their hat into the ring a better understanding of what qualities state officials and the public are looking for in the next chief state’s attorney
“Applicants should understand what they are being asked to respond to in the interview process itself,” McDonald said. “We want to make sure we have all of this in mind when we advertise this, that the applicants who are contemplating applying will be watching as well, and will be making a final decision whether they still want to apply, after the public forum.”
McDonald stressed the commission is not seeking comments on specific past grievances with state prosecutors, or anyone who works in their offices. “We’re looking to really focus on more systemic types of issues that have worked well, that haven’t worked well, or even more importantly, that people are looking to develop in the future under a new chief state’s attorney,” he explained.
The search for a new chief state’s attorney comes at a time when reformers and researchers have identified prosecutors as key figures in the criminal justice reform movement. Shortly after Kane announced his retirement, the ACLU of Connecticut urged the Criminal Justice Commission to undertake a “national search,” to appoint a chief state’s attorney who will work to decrease incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system.
“These folks typically are in place for a while, and they have a very significant stamp on the criminal justice system,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “We will be engaged regularly and watching carefully.”
Christine Perra Rapillo, Connecticut’s chief public defender, will not be at the public forum Friday but said attorneys from her office might be there. Whomever replaces Kane will become familiar with the public defenders, as each agency has a hand in crafting the state’s criminal justice policies.
“We don’t agree with the prosecutors on everything, but on policy issues, we are able to work together to move things forward,” Rapillo said. “We fight, but we can still work productively together.”
Police officers, meanwhile, are hoping Kane’s replacement “understands the contemporary issues of policing in today’s very complex environment,” in the words of Keith L. Mello, Milford police chief and the president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. Mello will not be at the public forum, but said someone from his association will be there. He will also submit a letter to the commission.
Mello said the next chief state’s attorney should “maintain vigorous prosecution of criminals while protecting the rights of all of our citizens.” He doesn’t think those goals are at odds with proponents of criminal justice reform.
“We all have the same thing in mind, and that is to continue to see improved delivery of our criminal justice resources to the public,” he said.
With Nov. 1 looming, McDonald suggested the commission could appoint an acting chief state’s attorney, so they could keep screening and interviewing candidates.
“We’re moving as quickly as possible under the circumstances,” McDonald said, “but I think we are focused more on finding and selecting the right candidate, than finding the candidate the fastest.”