HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Black and Hispanic residents continue to make up a disproportionate number of people in Connecticut's justice system, which also is charging African Americans with felonies at higher rates, according to an analysis of state prosecution data released Thursday.
The report is the second annual review of court data stemming from a 2019 state law mandating a deep look into how state prosecutors are doing their jobs and the fairness of the justice system. State officials say it was the first law of its kind in the country.
Researchers with the state Office of Policy and Management and The Urban Institute reviewed nearly 156,000 charges in more than 65,000 criminal cases that were closed in 2020. The number of total cases declined 47% compared with 2019, which officials linked to the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of many courthouses, but racial disparities remained at nearly the same levels.
About 28% of all disposed cases in 2020 involved Black residents, who comprise 11% of the state population, the same percentage as in 2019. Hispanic residents, who make up 17% of the population, were charged in 23% of all disposed cases in 2020, compared with 26% in 2019.
White residents comprise 67% of the population and were involved in 46% of prosecutions in 2020, up three percentage points from the year before.
The report also said Black defendants are disproportionately represented among those prosecuted for felonies.
Analysts noted that about 62% of violent crimes in the state are reported in the Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport judicial districts, where about 63% of the state's Black residents and 47% of the state's Hispanic population live.
The report does not specifically address the reasoning behind the racial disparities.
“There is substantial disproportionality across the three demographic groups,” Marc Pelka, the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice, told the state Criminal Justice Commission on Thursday during a presentation of the report.
“We feel it’s important to share this analysis and use it as a platform to dig in deeper into this, to examine earlier on in the criminal justice system opportunities to reduce disparity,” he said.
Chief State's Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr., the state's top prosecutor, noted prosecutors nolled — or dropped — criminal charges in 47% of the cases disposed of in 2020. In many of those cases, defendants agreed to enter diversionary programs that resulted in charges being erased. In other disposed cases, 29% were dismissed by the courts and 24% resulted in convictions.
Colangelo said nolles are an important tool for prosecutors.
“Because the prosecutors don’t screen charges from the police, this is kind of our equalizer, the way to equalize those things in the system in Connecticut,” Colangelo said.
Reginald Betts, a member of the Criminal Justice Commission, said the large number of cases nolled and dismissed may suggest problems with policing. But he said more data is needed before coming to any conclusions, including ones about racial disparities.
“We could try to make some assumptions about Black criminality or we could try to make assumptions about over-policing,” said Betts, who spent eight years in prison for a carjacking he committed as a teenager and is now a lawyer. “I think that data alone doesn't really support either one of those conclusions and I would prefer not make either one.”
Betts and Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut State Conference of the NAACP, said the data show what they already know, that the criminal justice system is harsher on Black people and other minorities.
“This report is shameful,” Esdaile said in an interview. He added that with the wide range of police accountability and other criminal justice reforms passed by the state in recent years, “We should be a lot more progressive in the state of Connecticut.”