While we like to think that justice is blind and that everyone is treated equally by our court system, there is very little data to support that belief. Prosecutors, for instance, make decisions every day that affect people’s liberty, but systematic compiling of data about those decisions — and whether minorities regularly receive harsher treatment — is lacking.
That’s why Connecticut is about to become the first state to begin collecting prosecutorial data statewide, under legislation that received rare unanimous votes in both houses of the General Assembly.
Because prosecutors have a great deal of discretion in how they handle cases, this effort could show how criminal cases are resolved and whether minorities are treated differently.
This is consistent with previous efforts to track police encounters with minorities in various municipalities, in this state and elsewhere, in an attempt to compile hard facts about how police treat citizens of diverse racial backgrounds.
“It is part of an effort to try to understand what disparities may or may not exist,” state Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, told The Associated Press. “If we’re going to take away people’s liberty, we have to make sure there’s nothing untoward in what we’re doing.”
And taking away people’s liberty is a big part of what any judicial system does.
About 13 percent of the U.S. population is black and about 18 percent is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the incarceration rate for black men is double the rate for Hispanic men and almost six times the rate for white men. With numbers like that, questions about a lack of fairness in the system simply ask themselves.
Under Connecticut’s new law, prosecutors will compile data on prison time received, plea bargains or diversionary programs.
That data will be broken down by race, ethnicity, sex and age and reported to the Office of Policy and Management, which will analyze it and report it annually to the Judiciary Committee.
This law is altogether reasonable and should be productive. We’d like to think our judicial system is fair and even-handed, but without this kind of information we can’t make that claim.