Brandon Johnson campaign

For the last decade,  a group of criminal justice reformers have delivered a jolt to the legal system. From Rachel Rollins to Larry Krasner, these “progressive prosecutors” have exercised the executive power of the district attorney’s office to effect change. 

Despite significant reforms at the state level, these municipal-level challenges to mass incarceration have largely passed Connecticut by. However, the election of Brandon Johnson in Chicago points to reason for hope. Connecticut voters do not elect their prosecutors, but they do elect their mayors. Taking the governing philosophy of progressive prosecutors to city hall offers one of the best opportunities to build a more just legal system. 

Progressive prosecutors have found success by convincing the public that the legal system has overly criminalized a variety of activities, unfairly targeted Black and brown residents, and led to mass incarceration. To combat these trends, these attorneys have pushed bail reform efforts, declined to prosecute certain low-level offenses, increased police oversight, established conviction review units and moved to allow more treatment options for drug addiction. This has been a winning message from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, Oakland to St. Louis. 

Liam Brennan

However, Connecticut selects local prosecutors through an appointment system, whereby the potential State’s Attorneys go before a criminal justice commission. This has insulated Connecticut from some of the most rabid “lock-them-up” type of nominees, who have appealed to the masses in the past. However, since it means that most nominees work their way up through the system, it has also prevented anyone from really revolutionizing the offices from the inside. Moreover, after District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s high profile recall in San Francisco, a prevailing narrative spread in political circles: Democrats had gone too far with their reform efforts. Municipal-level challenges to the criminal legal system were done.   

This was always a flawed analysis. The results from other elections showed that Chesa Boudin’s defeat was more of an outlier than a trend. And Brandon Johnson’s ability to defeat Paul Vallas’s traditional approach to crime in Chicago should not only reenergize the reform movement, it should point it toward a new frontier, particularly in Connecticut – the mayor’s office. Mayors have significant influence over the architecture of law enforcement and mass incarceration. They can use that power to take a more holistic approach to public safety.

The War on Drugs is one of the easiest areas to apply this policy. Drug prohibition has failed, just like it failed with alcohol, fueling an underground economy that has produced more drugs and more violence. While full scale decriminalization may be a way off, that doesn’t mean that cities must continue to wage an ineffective war against their citizens.

The War on Drugs hinges on the voluntary cooperation of thousands of municipalities across the country. But nothing obligates citizens to waste money on these ineffective programs. Mayors can set police department policy to prohibit officers from making non-violent drug arrests. And they have a template for doing so. In 2005, I was part of a group of immigrant rights advocates in New Haven that convinced the city to adopt a policy of refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Similar policies were enacted in cities all over the country. Mayors can take the same approach with drugs. 

Traffic stops are another area where these tactics should be used to change the legal system. Traffic stops are the single most common interaction between the police and the public. Like in the case of Jayland Walker in Ohio or Tyre Nichols in Tennessee, they can also be fatal for (often Black) motorists. Between 2016 and 2021, police officers killed 400 unarmed motorists who were not being pursued for violent crime. This is often the result of “pretextual traffic stops” – whereby the police stop cars for a moving violation in an effort to address more serious crime.  The police chief in New Haven recently told our Board of Alders that his department increased traffic stops 300% this year in an effort to combat violence. This is a tactic I have seen as Inspector General in Hartford, investigating allegations of police misconduct. Twelve of the cases that came before my office last year involved the scenarios.

These pretextual traffic stops, like the “stop and frisk” approaches many departments embraced in past decades, are often riddled with biases, and they are also an inefficient way to uncover other crimes. A recent Connecticut study found that car searches following routine traffic stops produced contraband in less than 7% of vehicles – and most of the time that contraband was marijuana. In the cases I have personally overseen, these tactics are not only ineffective, they generate ill will with those residents subjected to them. This leads to an overall (and understandable) distrust of government.  

A better way would be to remove police from road enforcement altogether.  Where statutes allow, mayors can reassign traffic enforcement duties to non-police personnel and use urban design and automated cameras to address traffic violence. Where statutes require police to conduct traffic enforcement, mayors can implement policies that restrict officers from conducting these pretextual stops. 

The crop of progressive district attorneys have pointed a clear path toward reform. Their approach can be adapted and amplified by bringing it to the mayor’s office, particularly in places like Connecticut with unelected prosecutors. The road to mass incarceration was paved with many different bricks; the path to criminal justice reform runs through city hall. 

Liam Brennan, the interim Inspector General in Hartford, is a candidate for mayor in New Haven.