Report: Early intervention for low-level offenders shows promising results
Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane's office released a report Friday indicating a pilot program that enables prosecutors and social workers to screen and assist people before their initial court appearance could save the state up to $9 million in the first year if expanded statewide.
The Division of Criminal Justice's Early Screening and Intervention Program, or ESI, began in Bridgeport and Waterbury in 2017 and expanded to Hartford, New London, New Haven and Norwich in mid-2018. The division, seeking to take the program statewide, indicates in the report to the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee that the early results are promising and that Judicial Branch officials and Gov. Ned Lamont's transition team have recommended its expansion.
If implemented statewide, the report estimates the ESI would save members of the public from making nearly 54,000 court appearances each year. At five minutes per appearance, the program would free up 4,500 hours of court time annually, the report indicates.
"Perhaps more importantly, 54,000 less appearances for low-level offenders would mean an additional 54,000 days without missed work; 54,000 fewer risks of losing child care. 54,000 more chances to get on with productive lives," the report says.
The Criminal Justice Division did not include in the study a budget projection for statewide expansion. The pilot program initially was funded by a $489,149 grant from the Stamford-based Herbert and Nell Singer Foundation. The state Office of Policy Management granted $101,396 to cover program costs through June 30, 2019.
The program is staffed by per diem prosecutors and local social service providers, including social worker Tiana Baker from Reliance Health in Norwich, and seeks to identify lower-level offenders who would be best served, along with the public, by being steered into services and treatment rather than prosecution.
In Connecticut, police level charges against offenders and their cases are referred to court without being screened by a prosecutor. The ESI program "gives the criminal justice system one more set of eyes to see what's going on and maybe do something about it," said New London's ESI prosecutor, Michael Kennedy.
The report indicates that of the 10,676 cases screened by ESI prosecutors for possible intervention, 2,514 were accepted. The people in those cases were charged with offenses such as shoplifting, breach of peace, disorderly conduct, interfering with police and low-level drug crimes. More than 89 percent were resolved with community service or an existing diversionary program with two or fewer appearances before a judge, according to the report.
Types of diversion included community service, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment or a warning to stay out of trouble, according to the report.
The report cites a Bridgeport case of a man stopped for a minor traffic offense who had a turban and a beard and a sword on the front seat of his car. He was cited for a weapons offense, but the prosecutor, sensing something didn't add up, took a closer look and learned that the defendant was a Sikh wedding officiant and the sword was part of the ceremony.
"Rather than disrupting this individual's life with a formal charge (and many continuances) the problem was solved with a simple 'keep the sword in the trunk,'" the report said. The man was told at his first court appearance that the case would not be prosecuted.
Ordinarily, many first-time offenders are allowed to resolve their cases with diversionary programs such as accelerated rehabilitation, but they only get one opportunity at the programs. The ESI program enables people charged with minor offenses to save their accelerated rehabilitation opportunity for another, more serious offense while resolving their charges by paying a small fine or performing community service.
Domestic violence and drunken driving cases are excluded from the program.
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