CT’s top prosecutor: Lack of funds hindering investigations
HARTFORD — Despite a $2.4 million budget increase recommended by Gov. Ned Lamont, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said he’s looking for an additional $1.5 million to continue and expand a successful court diversion program while also meeting the needs of legislators who are calling for greater transparency within the Division of Criminal Justice.
Kane told members of the Appropriations Committee last week that his division has been decimated by budget rescissions and hiring freezes. He’s currently down 70 staff members, leaving the specialized units that investigate everything from cold case murders to fraud and corruption with skeleton crews.
“This has severely limited, if not eliminated, our ability to undertake complicated investigations in areas such as public corruption or complex financial crimes,” Kane said. “In fact, it is largely due to the commitment and dedication of valued employees that we have been able to maintain any involvement at all in these areas.”
Kane was seeking $50.3 million to hire prosecutors, inspectors and support staff before 30 percent of his employees become eligible to retire in 2022. Lamont came back with $49.9 million — about $2.3 million more than Kane’s current budget.
Lamont cut about $400,000 in training, salaries and operations from Kane’s $50.3 million request which did not include the additional $1.5 million.
But Deputy Chief State’s Attorney John Russotto said while Lamont’s budget recommendation would increase staff, the money won’t be enough to fund and expand the pilot of the Early Screening and Intervention Program which has diverted 2,514 people from court proceedings to services and diversionary programs.
“We want to get back to our proper staffing levels,” Russotto said. “Like the state police, we’re plugging holes. Getting those (positions) back will get us back to where we were.”
The division has 418 employees. Lamont’s recommendation would bring the number up to 486, Kane said.
The division needs another 14 employees above the 486 to continue and expand the Early Screening and Intervention Program, which has been funded with grant money since its inception in spring of 2017. The grant money will run out in June, Russotto said. The program currently provides for a dedicated prosecutor and resource counselor at the Bridgeport, Waterbury, New Haven, Hartford and Norwich and New London Geographical Courts.
The prosecutor and resource counselor assess low-level offenders for issues such as substance abuse or homelessness that may be driving criminal behavior at the start of their court cases, under the program.
The defendants are then hooked up with service providers or diverted to Judicial Branch programs to address their cases without having to make a court appearance every month to deal with the charges. The average defendant only sees a judge twice during the process, officials said.
Kane’s staff estimated that the program would save the public 54,000 court appearances and save 4,500 hours of court time annually, freeing up judges, prosecutors, public defenders and staff to deal with more serious cases.
It would cost $840,000 to hire the seven prosecutors and seven resource counselors for the courts that already have the program and expand it to New Britain and Stamford and Norwalk, which would share a prosecutor in the same way the Norwich and New London courts do, Russotto said.
“It is time and resource intensive up front,” Russotto said. “But we can eliminate stuff coming through the system because it’s still early in the process.”
Kane also needs another $690,000 to hire 13 technology paralegals to oversee the case management system which is expected to be piloted this summer and review body camera footage.
The paralegals would each be stationed at one of the state’s 13 Judicial District courts to oversee the case management system which would gather arrest and prosecution data electronically and any police body camera evidence, which must be painstakingly reviewed, Russotto said.
Legislative leaders including Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, put forth SB 880, which would require Kane’s division to supply a wide range of information on arrests, including the charges, sentence, and detailed demographic information about the defendant on an annual basis to allow the legislature and the public to determine disparities in criminal proceedings.
The bill was filed with the Judiciary Committee Feb. 21 and has not been scheduled yet for a public hearing.
“It goes without saying that without additional IT/support personnel the division currently simply does not have the capability to collect and organize the data envisioned in the bill,” Kane said. “The five IT personnel now serving four dozen locations and nearly 500 employees statewide are already stretched to the limit and their duties do not yet even include the case management system.”
Kane asked the Office of Policy and Management if he could add 13 employees for the case management system last fall, but was denied, which is why he didn’t include the money in his $50.3 million request, Russotto said.
Kane will appear before the Appropriations sub-committee at the end of this month to further explain his request. The full Appropriations Committee will hold public hearings on all aspects of the budget and have discussions with legislators before presenting their budget recommendation in the coming weeks.