The drop in Connecticut’s crime rate, remaining at a 50-year low, has produced the expected decrease in the number of criminal cases.
Connecticut’s courts saw 92,053 new criminal cases in the 2015-16 fiscal year, the most recently available data, down from 120,879 cases 10 years earlier and 134,962 in 1985-86.
The reduction in cases hasn’t affected the number of trials much, though, particularly at lower-level criminal courts, drawing concerns from officials and advocates who were hoping that fewer overall cases might leave more opportunities for cases to go to trial.
Trials do remain a regular part of dispositions within judicial district courts, the so-called Part A courts that handle more serious offenses like murder and rape. Trials accounted for 6 percent of all Part A dispositions in 2016, compared to 5.4 percent in 2006 and 5.2 percent in 1986.
Mike Lawlor, the Office of Policy and Management undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, said the process is very different in the lower geographical area courts, where roughly 0.1 percent of all cases go to trial.
Lawlor didn’t have figures available Friday, but said that rate is down significantly from when he was a prosecutor in the mid-1980s.
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“For people who have no experience with the criminal justice system, I think that comes as a big surprise,” he said. Lawlor recalled having 14 cases go to trial in his three-year career as a prosecutor in New Haven, most of them “almost back-to-back” in his last 18 months.
Lawlor, also a former lawmaker before he became Malloy’s criminal justice policy chief in 2011, said the contrast in frequencies is a concern because the vast majority of cases remain at the geographical area, or Part B, level. In 2016, for example, roughly 3 percent of cases were transferred to Part A courts.
Only the most serious charges are even eligible, and prosecutors at the judicial district courts — there are 13 around the state — have the ability to accept or reject cases through a screening process.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane also expressed concern about the infrequency of trials, noting it’s been a national trend for years. The American Bar Association, for example, wrote about “the vanishing trial” in 2004.
“I’d love to see, and I’ve been saying for years that I’d like to see more trials,” said Kane, a prosecutor for 45 years.
He, like Lawlor, recalls having more cases go to trial in the past, but he said prosecutors began opting for more plea bargains beginning in the 1970s. He said that became even more common in response the peak in crime rates in the late 1980s and 1990s.
“When I started as a prosecutor, we tried cases all the time,” he said.
Both Lawlor and Kane say the trend is concerning, because a lack of trials also limits the opportunities for prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys to gain experience. Along with questioning and arguing cases, trials also include crucial procedural hearings on evidence, witnesses, and even whether someone’s criminal history is relevant.
Lawlor said it’s important for police officers to have experience testifying, too, so they are aware of all the ways defense attorney may try to discredit their evidence. Experience officers can try to address those challenges while investigating a case, as opposed to having to defend themselves on a witness stand.
If you’ve never been challenged on that ... you may end up getting a little bit sloppy,” he said.
ACLU CT Executive Director David McGuire was even more critical of the trend, saying it deprives defendants of the chance to challenge evidence or confront their accusers.
“It shows that our judicial system is broken and not operating as it should be,” he said.
Lawlor said trends also show cases taking longer to resolve, which McGuire said results in prosecutors being able to arrive at unfair dispositions.
McGuire said defendants held in pretrial detention in lieu of bond are more likely to accept a deal if it means getting out of jail sooner, while those who want to fight their charges may ultimately give up due to time or financial constraints.
While Lawlor and Kane both agree that the trend is a problem, they disagree on its cause and its solution.
Lawlor said it’s a matter of getting prosecutors to change their approach, especially now that case dockets are significantly smaller than they were 20 years ago. “We’re not talking about trying most cases, we’re talking about trying more cases,” he said.
Kane, though, said courts need to become more efficient with their resources, making them more able to accommodate an increase in trials. “I think the lack of trials is symbolic of a larger problem,” he said.
The Judicial Branch has already embarked on a pilot program to accomplish just this, implementing a screening process in courts in Waterbury and Bridgeport that give prosecutors more discretion of cases from the beginning. The legislature recently approved an expansion to two more courts.
In Connecticut, defendants charged by police are automatically arraigned and see their cases added to court dockets. Prosecutors have the discretion to “nolle,” or not prosecute, a case, but only after it enters the court system.
The pilot program follows a model in other states, where prosecutors have the discretion to deny cases before they ever enter the court system. Kane said this can help prosecutors reduce caseloads by rejecting cases due to a lack of evidence, or because they can be resolved without criminal charges.
Additionally, prosecutors can send cases back to police with a request that they establish more evidence before charges are lodged. This would result in police doing more investigative work earlier in the process rather than waiting for cases to go to trial.
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