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Editorial Are prosecutors fair? You be the judge

May 1, 2019

Let’s face it, justice has never really been blind. But it could use a pair of bifocals.

An Urban Institute survey offers alarming evidence that American prosecutors make little effort to collate data on people who are arrested and their legal outcomes.

For cynics who suspect prosecutors act on instinct, there seems to be little reason to believe otherwise. Prosecutorial data is tracked better on “Law and Order” blogs than in actual American courtrooms.

Exhibit A: The Urban Institute provided surveys to 682 prosecutors’ offices. Only 141 responded (17 others filled out a shorter survey).

Exhibit B: Of the ones that responded, fewer than half collected all seven metrics cited by the Urban Institute. Data was gathered on cases referred, charges at arrest, the final charges, cases declined, cases dismissed, cases resolved by a plea and cases that went to trial.

Exhibit C: Of data prosecutors do record, they are least likely to track defendant characteristics and victim characteristics

Exhibit D: Connecticut’s 13 state’s attorney’s offices don’t track data because they use a paper filing system.

Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane confessed that “We’re functioning in the modern age like we were functioning in 1942 or 1943.”

It’s a pretty damning statement, but to his credit, Kane is leading the charge to push Connecticut forward some eight decades.

He’s gotten a big shove himself from a bill pitched by none other than Gov. Ned Lamont, who cited the need for more transparency in the justice system while on the campaign trail.

Lamont’s legislative bill would, among other things, track the race, ethnicity, gender and age of defendants and mandate public access to arrest and sentencing data, bails, plea deals and diversionary programs.

“This is part of Connecticut’s larger effort to increase prosecutorial data and transparency,” said Marc Pelka, Undersecretary of Criminal Justice for the Office of Policy and Management.

The public should not feel as though prosecutors go by their gut, particularly in an era when coaches, movie moguls and shoppers all make choices after considering data. Imagine if schools didn’t have to worry about tracking outcomes.

Lives are at stake, and prosecutors should be able to consider which people are cut loose before trial, and which ones cool their heels in jail. The public could also identify how judges trend on sentencings.

The legal community is hardly taking a laissez-faire attitude toward the bill. It was revised in March following input from the Judicial Branch, the Office of Policy and Management, the Chief Public Defenders Office and the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union.

Keeping a scorecard holds the potential to influence the charges a suspect faces, who goes to prison and how long they are incarcerated. It can also, if the data is not ignored, drive public policy.

The state’s Division of Criminal Justice is commonly exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act, so releasing this data would balance the scales.

Then we could all judge for ourselves.