A new docket has been created to handle gun-related felony cases in the New Britain Judicial District, but that doesn’t mean the state Judicial Branch plans to go around creating specialized courts at will.
Last week, prosecutors announced the new “gun docket” as part of an initiative to tackle a surge in gun-related violence in New Britain and Bristol. State’s Attorney Brian Preleski said he assigned a prosecutor to focus on gun-related cases full time.
“From a case management point of view, there’s always a benefit of having the same type of case being handled by one judge,” said Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, the deputy chief court administrator. “There’s a level of consistency, so the judge is familiar with the history of a case.”
The idea of assigning one prosecutor and one judge to most of the district’s gun cases came from Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane and Preleski. Other cities have had gun dockets over the years, including Bridgeport and Waterbury.
Carroll explained that unlike other specialized dockets, such as domestic violence and a couple of drug court dockets in New Haven and Bridgeport, there was no money set aside for the gun docket. “It’s not like there is a great extensive approval process or vetting process by judicial on this,” he said. “It’s really a matter of whether there’s a judge available who could accomodate what the state’s attorney wants to do, with respect to isolating a certain type of case and have them called on a certain day. That’s exactly what happened in New Britain.”
Carroll said court administrators are aware that they can’t devote too many resources to specialty dockets. He acknowledged that the domestic violence dockets operating in a number of judicial districts are “very resource heavy” in the sense that they require specially trained probation officers and victims advocates as well as designated judges.
Another docket was recently introduced in New London for cases involving veterans who might qualify for accelerated rehabilitation for less serious criminal charges. “I think we are acutely aware that there is a desire by many to create special dockets,” Carroll said. “And to the extent that we can cooperate, we do that.”
The key, he said, is to prioritize. “Because many [special dockets] are driven by a need for resources, that severely limits what the branch can do with respect to expansion of specialty dockets,” Carroll said.
The new gun case prosecutor is Assistant State’s Attorney Chris Watson, a University of Connecticut School of Law graduate and New Britain native who interned for the State’s Attorneys Office in his hometown before earning his stripes as a prosecutor in the Bronx and then New Haven.
His new assignment was the latest response to a sharp rise in gun violence in Central Connecticut. Reports of shootings and gun violence have spiked so far this year, with 146 reports of shots fired being made from January through September in New Britain alone. Five people have been killed, and others have been injured. Preleski said some of the shootings have been gang-related and retaliatory.
Watson has already started handling the less serious felony gun cases in front of the presiding criminal judge, Judge Hillary B. Strackbein. At the moment, he has 38 pending cases.
Asked about the added caseload, as the presiding felony judge, Strackbein indicated the gun case numbers were not significant. She currently presides over about 1,200 cases on her docket, including some gun-related homicides.
The original plan was to set aside entire days for firearms cases, but so far, the number of cases hasn’t made that a necessity. “I’m hoping this [initiative] will cut down on some of the gun violence,” Strackbein said. “The gun cases will move quicker this way.”
Many of the defendants who appear on the gun docket have been in court before. And often, the defendants have been charged with other offenses, including drug-related crimes. “Typically, with gun cases, it’s not the first time we’ve seen them,” Strackbein said.
The judge said that sentencing guidelines — anyone convicted of having a handgun without a permit receives an automatic one-year sentence and felons in possession of firearms automatically get two years — takes much of the discretion away from her role. But having one prosecutor handling the cases will help separate the weaker cases from those that should be pursued.
Watson will prosecute cases that carry charges ranging from carrying a handgun without a permit all the way up to assault with a firearm. “For anything involving a gun, we have one set of eyes that handle those,” Preleski said. A smaller group of gun cases, including armed robberies involving firearms, will continue to be handled by the judicial district’s five other prosecutors.
“By having one person handling the gun cases, you make sure those types of cases get handled consistently and that their given the attention they deserve,” said Preleski. “Having one person handling them, he has the ability to see trends and make connections between those cases that maybe, if you had four different people handing them, might not get picked up.”
New Britain Public Defender Michael Isko doesn’t yet know how the cases will be selected for the docket or whether defense lawyers will be able to get their cases removed to other judges. “I’d like to see how it operates before I comment,” he said.•