Maryland gives prosecution a community-
oriented spin

Community-based approaches to crime control are widely believed to have done the trick for policing, so why not for prosecutors?

Officials in Maryland are hoping for just that kind of outcome from part of an ambitious, wide-ranging plan that will target three dozen crime “hot spots,” with an eye toward decreasing the state’s overall crime rate by as much as 35 percent in three years.

The anti-crime offensive, which was unveiled in June, will attempt to bring prosecutors closer to where the action is, establishing a number of community programs aimed at cultivating closer relationships with police and residents in a focused effort to alleviate neighborhood crime problems. As part of the plan, several state’s attorneys’ offices will assign prosecutors to handle cases generated in the 36 areas, or crime “hot spots” that officials say account for 11 percent of the state’s violent crime.

While the concept, which was pioneered by prosecutors in Multnomah County, Ore.; Marion County, Ind.; and Suffolk County, Mass., is being adopted by an increasing number of jurisdictions nationwide, the Maryland initiative is believed to be the first implementation of the program on such a large scale.

An outline of the overall plan obtained by Law Enforcement News shows that prosecutors, using funding provided through state and Federal grants, will be involved in a variety of activities to address specific crime and quality-of-life problems.

In the Center Eastport section of Annapolis, for example, a part-time assistant state’s attorney will be assigned to “ensure that crimes are prosecuted so as to maximize the positive impact of the prosecution on public safety,” according to the document. In the Garrett County town of Grantsville, an assistant state’s attorney will work one day a week in the town, “concentrating on problem-solving and criminal cases, especially domestic violence.”

Prosecutors will be assigned full-time to the village of Long Reach, in Howard County, and will be responsible for cases involving “the majority of defendants” from the area, and will work with victims and access services. The Somerset County town of South Crisfield will get a part-time prosecutor who will focus on quality-of-life issues and encourage “community involvement” in criminal prosecutions.

In Easton, a Talbot County state’s attorney will be assigned on a part-time basis to work closely with community probation teams, another feature of the “HotSpots” program. The teams will consist of trained “dedicated adult, juvenile, Federal probation officers, police and residents” who will supervise all cases in the community. The prosecutor will also act as a victim advocate during the prosecution of HotSpot cases and will address quality-of-life issues. In Worcester County, a community prosecutor in Pocomoke City will address nuisance properties  locations that generate the largest numbers of police calls. 

The inclusion of the community prosecution concept in the HotSpots program is part of an emerging trend being seen nationwide. “It is quite widespread these days,” noted Jeremy Travis, director of the National Institute of Justice, which has begun a study on the effectiveness of community prosecution programs. “It’s really catching on and capturing the imagination of many prosecutors.”

“Prosecutors around the country are placing assistants out in neighborhoods, working with community groups, trying to solve problems and reduce crime,” Travis told LEN. “The important difference is that they are reaching out explicitly to the community, not just for public relations, but for partnership, and trying to engage in a genuine problem-solving effort, rather than simply

prosecuting police arrests.”

The concept is much like community policing in its attempt to launch a coordinated, neighborhood-based offensive against persistent crime problems, Travis said. Like the policing philosophy, community prosecution “involves a major entity of the criminal justice system asking very fundamental questions about its relationship to the community it serves and the value of its core mission,” he noted.

The NIJ study of community prosecution programs, which is being conducted by George Kelling, co-developer of the “Broken Windows” crime-fighting theory that has been successfully adopted by scores of police departments, and Catherine Coles. The researchers are looking at the pioneering programs in place in Boston, Indianapolis, and Portland, Ore., and well as a program in Travis County, Texas.

The American Prosecutors’ Research Center, the research arm of the National District Attorneys’ Association, also has been closely observing the trend, although its director of management and program development said it was difficult to gauge how widely the community prosecution concept is being applied.

“Like community policing, it’s a matter of definition,” said Heike Gramckow. “If you apply a very tight definition, examining offices that have changed their operations, you could come up with 10 or 12. There are many others who are in the process of rethinking their approaches, trying to include the community a lot more in their efforts and working more closely with other organizations.”

Many of the programs currently in existence assign cases to prosecutors geographically, as is being done in Maryland, while others, such as the Suffolk County, Mass., District’s Attorney’s Office, will focus resources on a particular problem like juvenile crime or nuisance-abatement, Gramckow told LEN. 

As with any new program, it is difficult to evaluate how successful any of the approaches have been, Gramckow noted. “Most of these efforts are relatively new and not focused enough to really see what kind of difference they make.... It makes a difference in terms of better communication with police, courts and other players, not just in the criminal justice system, but also with other agencies that provide services.”

Any new approach is likely to be the target of criticism, and community prosecution is no different, Gramckow said. In order for programs to be successful, all of the players  police, prosecutors, judges and the community itself  must buy into it.

“There are prosecutors who will tell you they’re not social workers, they’re there to lock up people,” said Gramckow. “It’s amazing. It’s the same arguments you get from cops about community policing. Usually, this approach is easier to sell to elected officials because they see there’s not only political benefits but because there’s more of a role for prosecutors than just locking up people.”

In an ongoing pilot program in Howard County, Md., assistant state’s attorneys have been focusing their efforts on two planned communities, working with residents to curb nuisance crimes like graffiti and vandalism, including getting neighborhood-impact statements. The other part of the effort involves meeting regularly with residents in what State’s Attorney Marna McLendon called “an enhancement of community policing...trying to learn the issues and develop joint strategies  and sometimes those are outside traditional law enforcement. It just piggy-backs on the whole idea of problem-solving and community policing.”

The 18-month-old effort also includes a school-based program in which prosecutors meet every two weeks with parents, teachers, guidance counselors, school resource officers, principals and representatives from other county agencies, where “we talk about kids and what’s happening on a very current level,” McLendon told LEN.

Police input into community prosecution programs is essential, she continued, noting that a county police lieutenant was on the steering committee that devised the pilot program. “It’s an absolute team approach, and it won’t work without that,” said McLendon, herself a former county police officer who was elected to office in 1994.

Robert L. Deane, the State’s Attorney in Montgomery County, is reviving a community prosecutor program begun several years ago by his predecessor, Andrew Sonner. The effort was discontinued because it resulted in an uneven caseload that severely stretched the office’s resources, according to spokeswoman Sue Dudley, who said the new program was to become effective Sept. 15.

Dudley said the new effort will divide cases more evenly among prosecutors, who will be assigned to geographic areas corresponding to county police districts. Because of the agency’s previous attempt, “we now have a better blueprint of the nature of crime, where the caseload will be, and that’s how we’ll divide our resources,” she said.

As in Howard County, she added, police have been an important partner in getting the program off the ground. “It was done with an eye toward getting to know the community and the officers more intimately, so we’ve had a good working relationship and vice versa. It also made us aware of the hot spots in our police districts.”

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Oct 10, 1997. 
© 1997, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]