Court Closings Add to ‘Criminal Justice Triage’
Connecticut’s already strained court system is poised to stagger under the weight of cuts and layoffs as well as courthouse and judicial facility closures across the state.
The Judicial Branch is looking at $38.4 million in cuts in 2012, according to a list released Friday. That plan calls for the closure of four courthouses, one juvenile detention center, offices across the state, and six law libraries. Judicial will lay off 452 employees and eliminate 150 unfilled positions.
In a statement, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers admitted the new cuts will be devastating.
“I fear that our courts will be unable to fulfill the mandate that the Constitution requires and that every resident deserves,” Rogers said.
The branch must continue to try to adjudicate the more than 550,000 cases it sees every year with fewer clerks, interpreters, court monitors, family counselors, and less resources like law libraries, she said.
As the courts proceed, they will prioritize, Rogers wrote, with an emphasis on criminal matters. But her outlook is not optimistic.
“The end result is that our ability to administer justice as required by the Constitution may very well be compromised,” she concluded.
Some facility closures include:
—Enfield Superior Court, scheduled to close. Enfield court matters will be moved to Manchester and Hartford courts.
—Torrington Juvenile Court. The court’s cases will be taken on by Waterbury Juvenile Court.
—Rockville Juvenile Court. Hartford and Willimantic courts will take up the Rockville court’s case load.
—Danbury Juvenile Court. Those matters will be taken on by Stamford and Waterbury juvenile courts.
—New Haven Juvenile Detention Center will close. The offenders currently housed there will be moved to detention centers in Hartford and Bridgeport.
Judicial Branch Director of Administrative Services Tom Siconolfi said there’s no clear date yet as to when the facilities will close, other than as soon as possible. The branch already has identified which positions will be cut and the closure of its buildings will be driven by the fact that there won’t be people around to staff them, he said.
The branch doesn’t have the luxury of a lot of time.
“This is a little more like getting everyone out of a building because of a fire or because of a flood after a water main broke,” he said.
The strain the branch already was under was on display Thursday as special public defenders complained of late payments from the state at a training session in Hartford. Special public defenders are private lawyers the state hires, for a number of possible reasons, to defend accused criminals in the absence of a state public defender.
Special public defenders, for instance, are currently counsel for Joshua Komisarjevsky, the second defendant in the high-profile Cheshire triple-murder. Because the Public Defenders Office represented Steven Hayes, counsel for his co-defendant had to be contracted elsewhere.
At an Appropriations Committee hearing in April, Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey explained that expensive case, as well as a host of other reasons, caused the account that pays the special public defenders to run into deficiency by a projected $1.5 million. The state already had shorted that non-contractual account by $800,000 at the beginning of the last fiscal year.
As a result, some attorneys have had their payments delayed, and they were none too happy Thursday. Director of Special Public Defenders John R. Day tried hard to explain the situation to the lawyers and to assure them they would be paid.
“Those of you who were worried that the fiscal year was going to lapse and you were never going to get paid, I’ll say this to you now: we will never not pay you. If you’ve done the work and you legitimately did the work, that contract that you signed, if it’s $75 an hour or whatever it is, you’re going to get paid,” he said.
In her report to legislative leaders, Chief Court Administrator Barbara M. Quinn expressed concern that the cuts occur at a time when the state plans to close both the Bergin and Enfield Correctional Institutions, a move that will significantly increase the number of people on parole.
“The result is that the remaining probation officers will have higher caseloads and less time to closely supervise probationers,” she wrote.
And with the court system slowing it seems inevitable that cases will back up and more people will find themselves in pretrial lockup for longer periods of time. Department of Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone acknowledged earlier in the month that there already are prisoners sleeping on gym floors in the state’s pretrial detention areas.
Meanwhile, the Correction Department itself is facing about $157 million in cuts with around 860 layoffs. At least 191 of those layoffs will be correctional officers.
At the same time the state police are under strain to ensure public safety in the face of cuts and layoffs.
For years the state police have been operating below a statutory mandate requiring 1,248 troopers. But troopers are among the first layoffs. An entire class of 57 troopers who graduated in November will lose their jobs in late August. The next class of state troopers will be deferred for two years, according to the budget balancing plan released Friday.
On Wednesday, Malloy’s senior adviser Roy Occhiogrosso said the governor was confident that the commissioner of Public Safety and that the state police can handle the layoffs without a risk to the public. The change will just involve cops who have been working other assignments for awhile to be moved back on the road, he said.
But Andrew Matthews, president of the state troopers union, said people need to realize that much of state police operations do not involve uniformed on-the-road troopers.
About 725 troopers work on uniform functions, with the rest doing statutorily mandated jobs like working sex offender investigations, the state’s elite major crimes squad, narcotics, and gangs, he said.
“The public doesn’t see that on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
If those units are stripped and troopers placed back on the road, Matthews said one of two things will happen: either the public will pay more for state police overtime or the jobs will go undone.
In February 2009, the state police were operating at a high of 1,283 troopers. Today they are down to 1,127 and will likely be reduced to 1,070 in August. Given the numbers, Matthews questions how public safety can remain stable.
While Occhiogrosso called the mandated number of troopers “arbitrary on some level,” Matthews said that’s a convenient statement.
“If you had 1,283 troopers providing vital services to the taxpayers — what, you never needed 1,283? No. They hired them because they needed them. And now it’s convenient, they want to downsize government — the one place you don’t want to downsize when it comes to the protection of life and property is the state police,” he said.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, agreed.
“I would like to believe we put thought into our past legislation. It’s convenient to say it’s arbitrary when you want to ignore it,” he said.
Most of his constituents tell him the number one reason for government is to protect public safety, he said.
State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said even in light of the cuts the public will still be safe. The agency’s management knows which patrols need to be filled and “we’re going to do everything we have to to ensure the delivery of required services.”
It may involve moving police around, but the jobs will still get done, he said.
“If we had three troopers in a specific crimes unit, maybe we’ll have two instead,” he said. “
Vance said cutting staff to the affected units won’t necessarily make it more dangerous for them. He said it’s too soon to say whether the remaining officers will have to work more overtime to cover the loss of positions. Will the time it takes troopers to respond to incidents go up?
“No. In my heart I don’t believe it will,” Vance said.
Mike Lawlor, Malloy’s under secretary for criminal justice matters, said in light of the situation, which they were forced into, the state will have to do a little “criminal justice triage.”
He said that like the Judicial Branch, the criminal justice system will give priority to crimes concerning violence and possession of guns. There is even a statute, 51-277C, which offers guidance to that effect.
“Everyone in the criminal justice system is going to have give some thought to prioritization,” he said.
If police do prioritize violent and gun-related crimes over other crimes, the court system may have a smoother time functioning after its consolidation. Lawlor used Friday’s docket at Enfield Superior, one of the courts slated for closure, as an example. Nearly two thirds of the cases the court was scheduled to address were clearly not violent offenses, he said.