Connecticut’s Chief State’s Attorney talks COVID-19 and criminal justice reform
Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo assumed his job in late January, at a time of renewed public interest in prosecutors. They’re now seen as not just gatekeepers of the criminal justice system but as holding the keys to its reform. He will wield huge influence over criminal justice bills in future legislative sessions. He also has a big role to play in how Connecticut’s criminal justice systems respond to COVID-19.
Prosecutors have an array of powers to fundamentally affect the system. They decide whether to pursue a case after an individual is arrested, whether someone is convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, and can even influence a person’s case before the Board of Pardons and Parole.
The CT Mirror spoke with Colangelo in late February, about a month into his tenure. A few weeks later, the world changed. As the Department of Correction carefully releases people from jails and prisons in response to the pandemic, families with incarcerated loved ones are pleading with the state to release their relatives so they don’t have to wait it out behind bars, where social distancing is virtually impossible.
The Mirror spoke with Colangelo again, several weeks into Connecticut’s new normal, to talk about how the virus has affected state’s attorneys jobs and how they are responding to the crisis.
Q: What do you see as state’s attorneys’ role in trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons and jails?
A: It is ultimately Corrections releasing the prisoners that are sentenced, and working on that population. [But] if people are filing sentence modifications, there are things that we review. As far as reducing bonds for people that are not a threat or non-violent individuals, that is happening across the state right now as we’re speaking. And it’s been happening for the past month and a half. Honestly, once this started, that’s something that we started doing with [Court Support Services Division]. The Public Defenders and the state’s attorneys started on that path right away.
Q: You sent an email to all Division of Criminal Justice employees and state’s attorneys to not oppose motions to reduce bond or agree to release without bond —
A: Basically, what I let people know is, they should, and I didn’t say any of that so I don’t know what letter you have because that’s nothing that I said. What I said is before you think about bringing somebody into the Department of Corrections, we need to make sure that they should be there. In these times that we’re dealing with, if a promise to appear is appropriate, let’s make sure we’re giving that person a promise to appear. If conditions of release are appropriate before putting a bond on somebody, let’s make sure we do that.
Q: Is that any different from regular times, though?
A: I mean, in what we’re looking at? Yes. I wanted people to focus on, know that if you’re sending somebody in the prison, you could be putting somebody that is infected into it, or entering the disease into the prison, so the prison has to segregate those new people that are coming in and deal with that as an issue. I want them to be aware of what’s going on, and they are. I mean, the prosecutors were all over this before I sent my my email to them and had a conversation with them.
If you’re sending somebody in the prison, you could be putting somebody that is infected into it, or entering the disease into the prison, so the prison has to segregate those new people that are coming in and deal with that as an issue.”
Q: Does that mean it’s fair to say that when prosecutors are in a bail discussion, that COVID-19 is one of the factors that you are weighing as they’re trying to figure out their position on a defendant’s bond amount?
A: Yes, absolutely. The pandemic should be first and foremost on their mind when they’re looking at these cases.
Q: Is it a case-by-case basis where they need to be looking at each individual case and charge? Or are there certain classes of alleged crimes for which prosecutors should not oppose a lower bond?
A: No, I don’t have any particular class [in mind]. I mean, they know the class that we looked at when we were trying to see what people we can get out — only misdemeanor offenses [were what] we started looking at. Then we started getting cases from the [Court Support Services Division,] people that are held pretrial on less than $11,000 bond, and less than $25,000 bond. Now, I want less than $35,000 bond. We have to weigh the danger to society – the crimes that they have allegedly committed – and that they have a place to go. That is something we have to look at, and that’s what we’re weighing.
Q: The Department of Correction has said they are looking at compassionate and medical paroles as potential avenues for elderly and medically compromised inmates to be released. What do you see as the state’s attorneys role in that, and is your office on board with individuals being granted medical or compassionate parole during this pandemic?
A: One of the things that Correction is doing — and I am speaking with [DOC] Commissioner [Rollin] Cook weekly, at least, sometimes more than that; what does he need prosecutors to do to help him do what he needs to do? I know Corrections is working 24/7, trying to identify individuals that they could get out of the system. And they’ve reduced the population incredibly, if you look at the numbers… While some people might think it’s insignificant, what they have done is not insignificant.
As far as compassionate parole, those are things that we have to look at. And my mantra to state’s attorneys, and the way that I did my job as a prosecutor is, you know what, we have to do what’s right. And in that situation if the compassionate parole is right, if they’re calling for us to agree to something, then that’s what we do.
In all of these situations, we have to remember the victims, we have to remember the people that were affected by these crimes and make sure they have a voice in what’s going on. And I know that parole is doing that. I know that, DOC, when they want to get somebody out, they’re making sure that they have a place to go as far as a place to live or supportive housing.
Q: It’s an interesting time to be the chief state’s attorney in Connecticut. People are seeing prosecutors in a different light, as gatekeepers to reform. What are your colleagues in the state’s attorney’s offices thoughts on their role as criminal justice reformers? And do you think it’s going to take some work to get them on board with advocates like the ACLU of Connecticut, who are pushing for broader reforms to the criminal justice system?
A: The way that I look at the Division of Criminal Justice, we are defined in a constitutional amendment as the Chief State’s Attorney and 13 State’s Attorneys. That’s the division. That’s who has prosecutorial power. So, one person doesn’t lead the division. I think we’re a team. And that team is going to be instrumental in moving the division forward. To that end, I’m going to do some trainings with them to kind of let us all understand teamwork and employee engagement and the things that we should be doing. Like I said, I’m excited about the work has been done already for prosecutorial transparency. It’s going to allow us to let people know what we do. And that’s something that we haven’t done in years.
Q: Do you think state’s attorneys are open to reforms that advocates are calling for?
A: Yes, they’re open. I mean, I’ve never heard any of them say, ‘Absolutely not.’ And a lot of the reforms that we’re talking about are basically policy changes that the legislature has to make. And, you know, as far as state’s attorneys go, we enforce the laws that the legislature gives us. If they think that the best policy for the state is to do something, that’s what we’re going to do. Realistically, the state’s attorneys are open-minded; they understand the issues and the concerns of everyone.
Anything that’s come across my desk I’ve looked at, and if I feel I can prove it, I’m going to do what I think I should… And that’s really the way every prosecutor should be working.”
Q: What many advocates are calling for, though, is prosecutorial discretion.
A: We’ve always had discretion. I’ve never been told to prosecute a case or not prosecute a case. Anything that’s come across my desk I’ve looked at, and if I feel I can prove it, I’m going to do what I think I should, what’s right in that case. And that’s really the way every prosecutor should be working.
Q: You’ve mentioned that the legislature makes the laws and the prosecutors follow them. But the chief state’s attorney plays a huge role in crafting legislation. What role do you think that you’ll play as chief state’s attorney in the legislature?
A: Kind of the same role that that my predecessors have done. If there’s a bill that touches on criminal justice or issues revolving around that, you know, that division will offer testimony on it and give its ideas or thoughts on it. I think that’s one of the roles that chief state’s attorney has as the head of the agency. You know, if there’s legislation I don’t think it’s kind of going to work or is in conflict with what we’re doing already, I’ll voice that opinion.
Q: You talked about Clean Slate at the Voices of Justice Symposium in February. You had spoken about the governor’s proposed bill, which would have expunged class C and D misdemeanors after a person goes seven years without a conviction. And now Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, has proposed a bill that’s a lot broader. It would clear all classes of misdemeanors, and C, D and E felonies.
A: My position on Clean Slate, again, it’s a policy decision that the legislature is going to make. There’s a lot of competing interests. You have the victims. From my perspective as a prosecutor, dealing with cases, if someone has a conviction, and they’ve kept themselves conviction-free for seven years, you know, the right thing is to probably say, ‘Fine, that can be erased.’ [But] there are some crimes that we need to know about as people go forward. You know, domestic violence cases are tough, drunk driving cases, right? Repeat offenders in those instances, we want to keep society safe. Sexual offenses, there’s a few that come to mind.
Q: There is discussion at the legislature on the legal standard around the justification of police use of force. Do you think that lawmakers should change that legal standard? And if so, what sort of language do we need to be in the bill in order for you to support it?
A: I have no idea. Right now I know that the language in our statute complies with the Supreme Court cases around these incidents. I can’t really anticipate what anything would say.
Q: In principle, do you think the standard should change?
A: I think following the law is really important for us in the system. And the state of the law is what the state of the law is, realistically.
Q: Do you think, then, it’s important to better inform the public on what the law is?
A: When tasers were utilized in some of the most recent shootings and one that I investigated in Danbury recently – that was not effective. So, it kind of leaves the officers then, you know, ‘Where do you go from here when I did the non-lethal and it’s not working, and the person is still advancing on me with a weapon?’ That’s something that the public has to look at. Again, it’s hard for me to comment on something that I haven’t seen. I really have to deal with the situation as it is right now. And that’s what we’re doing. These aren’t easy cases. They’re not easy decisions for the police officers to make. And that’s something I think the public loses sight of sometimes. But on the flip side, someone loses their life, and that’s something that we don’t take lightly either.
Q: What do you see as prosecutors’ role in continued civil commitment hearings?
A: When somebody’s found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect in Connecticut, they’re sentenced to Whiting [Forensic Hospital]. And the Psychiatric Security Review Board, by statute, has to review everybody’s case every year to make a determination whether they’re a continuing threat to themselves or others. If the person was still a threat, I’d argue that they were right where they should be. If they were understanding their actions and they were able to control what put them there… [and] the department was recommending additional privileges or reductions, I usually didn’t argue it, but I wanted to make sure there was a record made and they were understanding what the offense was, and what the conduct was and the psychiatric issues that the person had at the time.
Q: I’ve talked to advocates who are concerned about continued civil commitment of folks, that they are in there for a long time and are almost trapped. Do you think that there’s a space for that process within the system? Are you willing to modify it or to abolish it all together?
A: That’s another one of those questions I really can’t answer. The way I plan on going about this job is if there are issues that come up, and people have solutions for them – if they’re good ideas – then we should look at them.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on the rule change as of Jan. 1 that allowed people with bonds of under $20,000 to post 10% for their pretrial release, which they would then get back if they showed up to court?
A: I think it’s a great idea. Again it allows someone to, if they have the money to save the money, and if they show up in court to get their money back. I mean, I think it’s a great help. We ought to make it easier for people, not harder. And that’s really what it comes down to.
Q: What do you think you can do in your position to make the system more just and equitable?
A: We started with this: the case management system, I think is going to do wonders for people to understand just how equitable the system is. You know, we’re going to have the data to be able to show, ‘Hey, look, this is the real story.’ Because forever people are, you know, it’s anecdotal, ‘Well this happened here, this happened there.’ You know, whenever people claim, ‘Well, that I heard this.’ Give me an example, give me the case, and I will look into it and deal with it.
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