Chief State's Attorney Richard Colangelo
Chief State’s Attorney Richard J. Colangelo, Jr., at a news conference in Rocky Hill last July Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Chief State’s Attorney Richard J. Colangelo, Jr., at a news conference in Rocky Hill last July Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

The Criminal Justice Commission on Tuesday reappointed Richard Colangelo to be Connecticut’s chief state’s attorney on Tuesday, giving him his first five-year term as the state’s top prosecutor.

Members of the Criminal Justice Commission went into executive session on May 13 after interviewing Colangelo but put their deliberations on pause and deliberated two more times before re-appointing Colangelo on Tuesday.

The complicating factor in their decision was whether to also reappoint Kevin Lawlor, the Deputy Chief State’s Attorney for Operations. Lawlor also interviewed to be the chief state’s attorney in January 2020. After not getting selected, he went back to working in the Division of Criminal Justice alongside the man who got the job he had wanted.

In his interview in May, commission members came away with the impression Lawlor didn’t feel comfortable being a proactive member of Colangelo’s team and that he wouldn’t offer input on important issues.

The commission members briefly re-interviewed Colangelo and Lawlor on Tuesday, giving them another chance to address the tension.

“In the beginning, it was something we had to work on and deal with, and we have,” Colangelo said. “I think we’ve come a long way in that relationship. And the division is better for it.”

Lawlor acknowledged that commission members were concerned about some of his answers from his interview in May, worried that he wouldn’t be able to work collaboratively with a person who got the job Lawlor had coveted.

“I think some of my answers were probably flippant,” Lawlor said, apologizing to the commission and reiterating that he is enthusiastic about his job and sees his role as “being a supportive person,” not pushing his beliefs on Colangelo because it is the chief state’s attorney’s decision, not his, on how to move the Division of Criminal Justice forward.

“I know that law enforcement and prosecution and the Division of Criminal Justice are at a critical moment in time to affect the change that we all know needs to be done,” Lawlor said. “I want to be a part of that change.”

Commissioners ultimately granted him that privilege, but not before a line of questioning from commissioner Reginald Dwayne Betts.

Betts, who spent 8 1/2 years in a Virginia prison for a crime he committed when he was a teenager, recounted how hard it was for him to get a job after coming home, how difficult it was to find a landlord willing to rent to someone with a criminal record, to get into school. But he succeeded, ultimately graduating from Yale Law School and passing the bar on his second try.

But even then, his record almost held him back. He got a letter indicating he might not be able to practice law because of questions over his character and fitness, a hurdle often faced by lawyers who have criminal records.

Members of the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee would make the decision as to whether Betts could practice law. Journalists wrote about Betts potentially not being able to work in his chosen field.

“It was people on this commission, now my colleagues, who passed word back to me that says, ‘You need to tell Dwayne to stop having people write about this in public. It’s not looking good for him,’” Betts recalled.

The committee ended up admitting Betts to the bar without holding a public hearing. “But if I would have had a public hearing, and responded in a way that you did in your hearing, you know, I wouldn’t be an attorney right now,” Betts said. “Knowing if I behaved at a public hearing in a way you did, I wouldn’t be a lawyer, I wonder why should you be reappointed to this position?”

Lawlor asked to be evaluated on the body of work he amassed in his 26 years as a prosecutor in Milford, and in his three years as deputy chief.

“Just like you wouldn’t want to be judged on any one act in your life, I’m asking not to be judged on the answers to some of those questions that I gave in that last hearing,” Lawlor said. “I’m not saying don’t take that into account. But I think I’d also like to say that those other things should be taken into account.”

Colangelo’s May 13 interview

The evolving role of state’s attorneys in criminal justice reform was a major topic of conversation during the committee members’ questioning in May. Colangelo, a career prosecutor, said he wants state’s attorneys to be “agents of change,” open to doing things differently than they may have in the past.

“When I started as a prosecutor in the ’90s, things were different,” Colangelo said. “We prosecuted cases differently and sentenced people differently.”

The Criminal Justice Commission appointed Colangelo on Jan. 30, 2020 to complete the term of his predecessor, Kevin Kane, the longest-serving chief state’s attorney in Connecticut history who retired at the end of November 2019.

In his interview last year, Colangelo said he would prioritize changing the Division of Criminal Justice’s culture so it is more open to public comment when people have questions about how it is handling a case.

“We have been kind of a closed shop,” Colangelo said on May 13. “The answer always was, ‘No comment.’ And I think we need to be as transparent as we possibly can.”

But less than two months into his tenure, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting down courts across the state and requiring prosecutors and defense attorneys to work together to figure out how to proceed.

Court hearings that weren’t pushed back were moved online. State’s attorneys, public defenders and the Judicial Branch collaborated to get people out of jail who hadn’t been convicted of a crime but were being held on bond.

“We started with people with bonds under $10,000 and then we went to $25, 50, $100 [thousand], and then had state’s attorneys looking at those bonds and cases to see who we can get out,” said Colangelo.

The Division of Criminal Justice is “triaging” the backlog of pending cases, Colangelo said. In each district, the Judicial Branch is scheduling 20 cases from the backlog, four times a day, in each judicial district.

“If somebody has not gotten in trouble in the last year, year and a half, my request to the state’s attorneys is, you know, maybe it was an unofficial AR [accelerated rehabilitation, a diversionary program] and we can enter a nolle [prosequi, or decision not to prosecute]. Or maybe it’s a guilty plea and unconditional discharge, if you feel that’s appropriate,” said Colangelo.

Andrew McDonald, chair of the Criminal Justice Commission, pointed out that many people were released from jail during the pandemic on their own recognizance, without having to post bail, raising the question: If these men and women didn’t get out and commit more crimes, have we been needlessly locking people up in jail on bail they can’t afford while they await the outcomes of their case?

Colangelo acknowledged there might be room for systematic change and that he wasn’t aware of anyone who had been released without a bond going out and committing serious crimes during the pandemic.

“We can’t say, you know, ‘Looking back, we did this wrong.’ We have to say, ‘Here going forward, maybe we don’t need to hold somebody pre-trial,’” Colangelo said. “I am trying to change the culture in the way that we’re looking at these cases, because it seems that that’s what society wants us to do.”

McDonald also questioned Colangelo on sentence lengths. It costs about $62,000 to keep someone locked up for a year, McDonald said. That means it costs taxpayers $1.8 million for a 30-year sentence, and $3.1 million for 50 years.

“I’m just trying to figure out whether the public is really made more safe between years 30 and 50,” said McDonald.

Colangelo said cost never figured into the recommendations he made to the court on lengths of sentence.

“I looked at the case, and I looked at the person’s record, and I looked at what was appropriate based on what they did, what they did to the victim and public safety,” he said. “When we are recommending those larger sentences, it is for someone that did something horrendous and horrific.”

Still, Colangelo acknowledged that he couldn’t say whether the public was made any safer based on whether someone had a 30- or 50-year sentence.

“That is a policy decision that our elected officials have to make with regard to the range of sentences that we’re able to impose,” said Colangelo.

There is a way for state’s attorneys to roll back the long sentences they sought. Betts asked Colangelo about sentence modifications, which can lead to shorter sentences for people serving long prison bids. Those serving sentences of three years or less can petition the court directly. But those who are serving any sentence longer than three years must get an agreement from a state’s attorney that the sentence can be reviewed, allowing prosecutors to act as a sort of gatekeeper.

Colangelo said he has asked state’s attorneys to write letters to petitioners clearly explaining the reasons behind their denying a sentence modification, in an effort at transparency.

“If somebody is doing really well, and they have an argument to be made, you know, maybe we shouldn’t argue against a sentence modification, maybe we should agree with it,” said Colangelo.

Considering the racial disparities in the incarcerated population — Black people represented about 44% of people in correctional facilities as of May 1; whites made up about 27%, despite making up about two-thirds of state residents overall — racial justice was a major part of Colangelo’s interview. On May 25, 2020, four months into Colangelo’s tenure, Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, thrusting police reform and abolition into the spotlight in Connecticut and across the United States.

Colangelo said he was on a panel shortly after Floyd’s murder, in which a Black state representative asked him, “‘Do you think my people commit crimes four times as much as your people?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t, but I have no idea why the incarceration rate is that way, I’ll look into it.’ And since that day, I’ve been trying to figure it out.”

Doing a deep-dive into racial disparities in the justice system is one of Colangelo’s top priorities as chief state’s attorney, he said. Other important initiatives include making sure the new inspector general’s office is adequately staffed and establishing a conviction integrity unit to investigate, and potentially overturn, wrongful convictions.

Colangelo identified his proudest accomplishment: Getting the Division of Criminal Justice’s case management system off the ground, a central part of understanding racial disparities. The system serves as a centralized database of all criminal cases in the state, arming prosecutors and state officials with a plethora of data.

“That is a huge change in the way that we process and deal with cases and information in the system,” said Colangelo, noting that the data could help build trust with the public.

“Transparency is important,” he said, “and being able to tell our story is very important.”

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Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.