Improving court efficiency and redirecting lives
A recent story in The Day highlighted a promising Connecticut judicial initiative that spares some defendants charged with minor crimes from criminal prosecution, reduces the backlog of court cases, and saves taxpayer dollars.
Day court reporter Karen Florin wrote about a pilot program that teams local prosecutors with social workers to screen non-violent criminal cases before they come to trial.
In Connecticut, police send arrest reports directly to the court for placement on the court’s docket. The system bypasses the opportunity for a state’s attorney to review a case to determine whether a prosecution should be undertaken. This bypass can result in weeks or months of court time to reach a verdict or a dismissal of charges.
The Early Screening and Intervention Program (ESI) identifies low-risk defendants charged with minor crimes like shoplifting, breach of peace, disorderly conduct or minor drug possessions. The prosecutor and a social worker steer selected ESI cases into social service treatment and/or community service volunteering rather than a criminal prosecution.
The program began in Waterbury and Bridgeport in 2017. It came to New London and Norwich, as well as Hartford and New Haven, in mid-2018. Prosecutor Michael Kennedy handles the ESI cases in New London. David Cordone oversees the program in Norwich.
“I review all the cases filed looking for non-violent crimes, excluding motor vehicle cases or domestic cases,” said Kennedy, who came out of retirement to work 20 hours a week on the ESI program. “I’m looking for people we can help and keep them from getting a criminal record.”
Tiana Baker, a social worker for Reliance Health, a non-profit agency in Norwich, screens the referrals from New London and Norwich. If Baker determines the defendant qualifies, she connects the accused with a social service agency.
“This benefits the justice system and the individual accused because it allows for social intervention at an early stage,” Baker said.
Defendants in the ESI program must agree to complete a treatment program provided by the appropriate agency. Many cases assign the defendant to perform community service.
Kennedy said the Christmas holiday season always increases the number of shoplifting arrests. Many of the minor holiday-shoplifting cases last year were resolved with the defendant contributing either to the store where the shoplifting occurred or to a charitable organization.
If the defendant successfully completes the terms of his or her recovery program, the prosecutor dismisses the charges without a criminal record.
From August to December 2018, there were 216 cases in New London and 240 cases in Norwich that were handled through the ESI program. Half of the cases involved first-time offenders.
A report recently issued on the pilot program’s progress in the six pilot program districts cited 2,514 cases admitted to the ESI program. Nearly 90 percent of the cases were resolved with community service and/or a social service program for the accused.
If implemented statewide, the report estimates ESI would eliminate 54,000 court appearances each year and achieve $9 million of savings. The ESI program now is underwritten with a grant from the Singer Family Foundation and is funded through June 30.
The state Division of Criminal Justice wants to formalize the ESI program with state funding from the 2019 budget. Charles Duffy of New London, a retired lobbyist, said he participated on a criminal justice subcommittee organized by then Governor-elect Ned Lamont to study ways to improve the judicial system. Duffy said the committee recommended expanding the ESI program.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, who heads the Division of Criminal Justice, said the group will make a presentation before the governor’s Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Committee on Feb. 28 for budget approval to expand the ESI program to Stamford, Norwalk, Danbury and New Britain next year and eventually the entire state.
The early screening and intervention initiative has delivered encouraging results during its brief incubation. It is improving efficiency in the court system and helping ease the case backlog.
More importantly, the program is advancing social justice by identifying and addressing the causes of criminal behavior before the crime escalates into something major and/or deadly.
This program goes to the heart of updating services and structural transformation that Gov. Lamont says he wants to bring to Connecticut state government. ESI is a program with multiple upside benefits to the state coffers and to the cause of justice. The Lamont administration and legislature should nurture and expand it.