Connecticut program diverts defendants in need of treatment

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A pilot program in several Connecticut cities aims to divert people accused of low-level offenses and who are homeless or have mental illness from the criminal justice system and get them treatment instead.

The Division of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state’s prosecutors, says the goal is to reduce the burden on the courts and find more appropriate, and often cheaper, outcomes for people struggling with addiction or other mental health issues in a state where police often file charges directly rather than working through prosecutors.

“If you ask most prosecutors the most difficult part of their job is the criminal justice system is the last stop on the mental health track,” Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Lawlor said.

The Early Screening and Intervention Initiative asks specially trained prosecutors to screen for low-level offenses — such as fourth-degree larceny or second-degree assault— and work with counselors in the courthouse to get the defendants treatment. If the person completes treatment, prosecutors then can decide not to pursue the case.

The initiative is another way Connecticut is trying to push criminal justice reform and deal with low-level offenders instead of just arresting them and sending them to prison.

The program began in 2017 in Bridgeport and Waterbury but expanded last year to include Hartford, New Haven, New London and Norwich.

In a February report, the criminal justice division said that courts where the program is in place have four-and-a-half times fewer appearances before a judge. If expanded statewide, the report said, the program could save over 4,500 court hours — or 54,000 court appearances.

Despite the hopes for the program, funding for it is precarious.

Money from the Stamford-based Herbert and Nell Singer Foundation and the Office of Policy and Management ran out on June 30, forcing the division to repurpose state funds allocated to them. The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is also helping with federal grant money that will run through September 2020.

Lawlor said the division hopes to show the Legislature that the program is a wise investment of state dollars.

David Smith, a New London prosecutor, said Connecticut’s unusual system of having police file charges without a prosecutor reviewing them makes this program especially important.

“The police arrest somebody and boom that person’s name is on the docket and there will be a prosecution,” said Smith.

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