Prosecutor Helps Keep West Haven Teens Out of Jail; Work with Youths Results in Fewer Repeat Offenders

The following article is reprinted with permission from the November 28, 2011, issue of the New Haven Register.

By Amanda Pinto, Register Staff

MILFORD — A decade ago, Assistant State’s Attorney John Barney Jr. was part of a first-of-its kind experiment in the state, a community prosecution program that offered some teenage first-time offenders alternatives to convictions and time behind bars.

The grant that allowed Barney to be West Haven’s first community prosecutor expired after two years. But now, 10 years after he began in the role, Barney remains the “unofficial community prosecutor,” helping offer young people volunteer opportunities or writing assignments in lieu of jail time for minor offenses.

“You’ll still find him around, giving talks and reaching out to the community,” said Ronald Quagliani, a retired city police chief who now is the University of New Haven’s executive director of safety and transportation. “The (grant) money dried up, but his advocacy and his passion for (the work) has not.”

The result of Barney’s efforts, which began under former State’s Attorney Mary Galvin and have continued under State’s Attorney Kevin Lawlor, have been fewer repeat offenders, Quagliani said.

The drop is particularly visible at West Haven High School, where there has been a “tremendous turnaround,” Barney said during an interview at Superior Court.

Some young offenders who are brought in for shoplifting, speeding or possession of alcohol violations are given the opportunity to visit the courthouse and write about their offenses, Barney said.

Instead of getting a criminal record for a misdemeanor, they get a learning opportunity and the idea that someone in a place of authority cares about them, serving as an incentive not to offend again.

“It’s outside-of-the-box stuff,” Barney said. “It gives us a chance to prosecute a little differently and show people that we’re not just locking people up — just the people that deserved to be locked up, really.”

It is a strategy that doesn’t always play well in “the court of public opinion,” Barney said.

Offenders who are given alternatives or light sentences, only to reoffend, often raise public ire. But in a court where cases range from “disputes over dog barking to murder,” prosecutors need to use judgment, Barney said.

“Each and every case that comes in here is distinct, and I fervently believe that not every case deserves incarceration,” he said.

When the grant was available, Barney had an office in the center of West Haven, where kids could go and speak with him about their crimes without having to set foot in a courthouse.

Carroll E. Brown, president of the West Haven Black Coalition, knew Barney from his youth and has worked with him frequently over the years.

“Because of that program, you don’t see too many repeaters,” she said. “I think it builds a level of trust.”

Barney, she said, is “extremely passionate; he doesn’t let the job get in the way of being a sensitive human being.”

Brown’s son, Shawn Brown, now is an adult mentor to West Haven High School students, and brings some of them to Barney’s office as a “wake-up call.”

Young people who have been arrested also observe court cases for everything from drunken driving to sexual assaults.

“I think about if that was me,” a 16-year-old West Haven High School junior said of his conversations with Barney and experience in court. “I definitely need to straighten out.”

While some of the young people have setbacks, others’ “success stories” keep Barney excited about his work.

“It’s not an easy job for sure,” Barney said. “(But) I love that I can come up here and talk to people all day long and work things out. Most of the time, you can work things out to people’s satisfaction, and that’s what keeps me coming back here every day. You really feel like you are making a difference in somebody’s life.”