Division of Criminal Justice's Early Screening Program, Prosecutors Highlighted in New Book
ROCKY HILL - When a woman was caught shoplifting girls soccer cleats from a local Walmart, Connecticut prosecutors didn’t just simply add the first-time offender’s name to the criminal docket.
Instead, they took a closer, more personal look at the woman through the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice’s Early Screening and Intervention program, Waterbury Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney Catherine Austin recalled in the recently published “To Prosecute,” a book that highlights innovative and progressive practices by prosecutors across the country.
Through the program, which offers low-level offenders alternatives to arrest and prison time, prosecutors learned that even with the three jobs the woman worked to support her family, she still couldn’t afford the cleats her daughter needed to play on the soccer team.
“She told our resource counselor that the embarrassment of not being able to afford what her daughter needed had driven her to desperation,” Austin said. “Our resource coordinator was able to connect her to representatives at the Police Athletic League who got her not one but two new pairs of new cleats. We made sure she knew that the next time she got in a bind, she could seek help first. Cases like this don’t need to end up in the criminal justice system.”
“To Prosecute,” edited by Emily LaGratta, a justice reform consultant and innovator and the former Director of Procedural Justice Initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation, holds Connecticut up as a state striving to find alternative, creative ways of helping low-level offenders struggling with mental illness, poverty or drug addiction, move away from the criminal justice system and into treatment.
The book, published by LaGratta Consulting LLC, the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) and the Herbert and Nell Singer Foundation, highlights the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice’s innovative Early Screening and Intervention program, commonly referred to as “ESI,” as an example of how the state is already carrying out progressive policies at a time when the public is taking a closer look at how prosecutors do their jobs, from addressing racial disparities in early case review to tracking data and community outreach.
In the ESI program, specially trained prosecutors screen for minor offenses while counselors in the courthouse work to get the defendants treatment. The result is a better outcome for a defendant and a reduced burden on the courts.
“The book recognized how Connecticut is moving beyond traditional criminal justice practices to ensure that the preservation of public safety and the protection of liberty are properly balanced every day in courthouses across the state,” Chief State’s Attorney Richard J. Colangelo, Jr., said. “And that’s important because it shows that prosecutors here truly care about the overall well-being of their communities as they work to be fair and just.”
While at the Center for Court Innovation, LaGratta worked with the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice and The Singer Foundation on the ESI early diversion program, a successful partnership, she said, that inspired the creation of “To Prosecute.”
“ESI generated a lot of energy and people were proud of it so we started to think about how do we celebrate it? How do we get the word out, not just in Connecticut, but nationally?” LaGratta said. “So the Singer Foundation and I cooked up this idea of telling the Connecticut story alongside similar stories. While in some ways the Connecticut story is unique, the questions that Connecticut prosecutors were asking were pretty similar to what others were asking in different places as well.”
In the book, more than 20 prosecutors from 17 states discuss their early decision-making practices when it comes to pursuing criminal cases and the impact changes in hiring practices, cultural shifts, partnerships and the push for racial equity has had on their offices. In Connecticut and across the country, LaGratta found prosecutors moving beyond traditional criminal justice practices, measures and cultures.
“What this book aims to show and what Connecticut’s story offers is that these responses are not limited to the aspirations of ‘progressive prosecutors,’” LaGratta said. “These practices show the hard work of a field that has evolved as a range of saavy and thoughtful prosecutors have put data and best practices to work and been more creative about solving the problems that are coming through.”
Though the interviews were conducted prior to the death in May of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody, the topics the book covers “are inseparable from the conversations we must have – and continue to have – going forward,” Lagratta and Nelson Bunn, executive director of the NDAA, wrote in the Preface.
“Change is difficult but possible,” Lagratta and Bunn wrote. “We urge you to wrestle with how these lessons can support your own efforts to enhance the delivery of justice.”
Former Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane wrote the book’s Foreword, recalling how in 2017, the Division of Criminal Justice took “a hard look” at what quality of justice Connecticut wanted to offer to its citizens.
“The answer we came up with was a form of justice that heals and nurtures communities and makes people feel safe and secure, not apprehensive or oppressed,” Kane wrote.
So Connecticut invested resources on examining low-level criminal cases and getting to know the offenders, ultimately “avoiding unnecessary court appearances and minimizing necessary ones, while also expediting the connection to needed services in the defendant’s community and reducing disruption of the lives of victims and defendants alike,” Kane wrote.
As a result, ESI saved the public nearly 54,000 court appearances annually, freeing up judges, prosecutors, public defenders and court staff so they could focus on more serious cases. Offenders who went through ESI missed fewer workdays and could move on with their productive lives a lot sooner, Kane wrote.
Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy recalls in the book how the ESI program arrived at a time when “everyone was talking about criminal justice reform” in Connecticut, including ways of reducing the number of times someone went to court to resolve their case and how to get people what they needed to stay out of the courtroom. Alternatives to incarceration were no longer just the work of defense attorneys, Hardy said. It was now up to prosecutors, as well, Hardy said, to come up with ideas and resources.
“Our goals were focused on stopping the revolving door of people coming through the system and reducing collateral consequences,” Hardy said.
LaGratta said nearly all of the prosecutors she interviewed for the book appear to be veering away – or at least supplementing – traditional law-and-order approaches.
“These prosecutors have pushed against the misconception that to be good at crime prevention or achieve public safety, you have to employ a one-dimensional tough-on-crime approach,” LaGratta said. “In fact, many said their new responses are far more consistent with the goals of public safety and have worked to foster much-needed public trust.”
Now, prosecutors want to be problem solvers for their communities, she said. Once they realize that they can attain justice and provide public safety with individualized justice and more human solutions, they look outside the courtroom for help from service providers and partnerships in the earliest stages of criminal cases.
“Almost unanimously, these prosecutors condemned the hard-nosed, punitive approach that can be ineffective, not to mention feel like paper pushing,” LaGratta said. “I really do commend the work that really has been a progression over the last several years which, to me, suggests that it is a real commitment and not one that was just window dressing or reactionary.”