Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Chief States Attorney Kevin Kane (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The Division of Criminal Justice received a $2.4 million boost from the recently signed state budget that will allow Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane to finally fill much needed positions.

However, with a pilot program about to run out of grant funding and a new case management system about to be rolled out, the question is which positions will Kane be able to fill with the money?

“It all ties together,” Kane said. “We need information promptly and that will come from the case management system. If we can receive information from police departments electronically as soon as possible, given that many people are released and given a two-week court date, if we receive the information when it happens rather than the day of the arraignment, we can act quickly.”

The divisions budget for the 2020 fiscal year was pegged at $49.96 million, about $2.4 million more than the current year. It will also be forced to save $212,957, Deputy Chief State’s Attorney John Russotto said.

But overall, the increase gives the division a much needed fiscal shot in the arm after years of hold backs that created vacancies that decimated staff in all of the department’s special units. Earlier this year, the division had 418 employees and 70 vacancies, Kane said.

The extra money will allow it to replace staff, but it will be a juggling act, if Kane wants to continue and expand the pilot of the Early Screening and Intervention Program (ESI) which has diverted 2,514 people from court proceedings to services and diversionary programs as of January 1.

He had asked the Appropriations Committee to consider adding more funding above Gov. Ned Lamont’s recommendation to continue and expand that program which requires dedicated prosecutors and resource counselors at each location. He’d also like to have a dedicated tech employee at all 13 Judicial Districts who will deal with the case management system and other technology issues.

However, the budget won’t be enough to fill 70 vacancies and pay for 27 additional staff for the case management program and ESI.

ESI has been funded with grant money since its inception in the spring of 2017. The grant money will run out in the next few months, 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. Kane also wanted to expand it to other courthouses throughout the state.

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.

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.

Officials 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.

The division currently uses paper files for all cases – there is no computerized system that allows police and prosecutors to share information, causing Kane to quip that his office is still functioning as if it were 1943.

The case management system will allow police to immediately input arrest information so prosecutors can quickly determine which people would benefit from ESI, Kane said. The system will also help the division comply with SB 880, a bill awaiting the governor’s signature, which requires Kane’s office to annually compile a wide array of arrest, sentencing and demographic information for public view.

In order to keep the ESI program intact and staff the case management system, the division will have to prioritize which positions will get filled, Russotto said. “We’ll have to pick very carefully where ESI will be located,” he said.

“We won’t be able to have an ESI unit in every GA (geographical court) in the state,” he added. “We will try to keep the original six and expand it a little.”

At the same time, the case management system is “high priority,” Russotto said. “People want to be able to look at our data,” he said.

“The big picture is that the appropriations that passed were significant,” Kane said. “This year things look pretty good,” he added. “I think we can do this.”

The Office of the Chief Public Defender also received an increase in funding this year, but most of it will go to contractual wage increases, according to Chief Public Defender Christine Rapillo.

The agency will get an additional $1.9 million in 2020, bringing its budget to $66.7 million. The only money that has been earmarked for new spending is $252,000 which will go to hiring four attorneys to represent defendants during parole revocation hearings. Some of the additional money is tied to SB 880 which not only requires Kane’s office to gather arrest, sentencing and demographic information but also requires the Office of the Chief Public Defender to provide representation for those who are facing a parole revocation hearing.

The budget, which was signed Wednesday by Lamont, also increases funding by about $400,000 for Project Longevity. The program that reduces gun violence through a partnership with community members, law enforcement, and social service providers who directly engage with members of street groups involved in gun violence will receive $998,750 a year from the state.
“Sustaining initiatives that work to reduce gun violence in Connecticut’s most vulnerable communities is integral to overall violence reduction strategies and conveys a clear commitment of Connecticut’s alignment with local, state, and national gun violence prevention advocates and values all lives in all communities,” Brent Peterkin, statewide coordinator with Project Longevity, said.