Prosecutors get closer to crime

Team tracks community troublemakers, ensures cases are handled aggressively

December 11, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Christina Ferris knows a lot about the criminals of Annapolis and the northern part of the county. She knows where they live, who they have children with, how many times they have been arrested and even their nicknames on the street.

For Ferris, a prosecutor for the county state's attorney's community unit, a day of work is as likely to include a meeting with a neighborhood association or riding with police as an appearance in court.

"You see patterns," said Ferris. "He's in the same neighborhood every time. He's always dealing drugs on the same block. It's maybe not showy, but it's very effective."

For two years, Ferris has been assigned to prosecute cases involving high-crime areas in Brooklyn Park, Pioneer City and Annapolis. Now, with money from the Capital City Safe Streets initiative, prosecutor Kathleen Evans has joined the team and will focus on crime in Annapolis.

The prosecutors work closely with police and parole and probation officers to identify troublemakers and ensure that their cases are handled aggressively.

"It provides for a much closer relationship with the police and the community," said State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. "You can actually see who's causing the problems and do something about it."

But the head of the county public defender's office cautioned that, if mishandled, the program could present a threat to civil liberties.

"The concerns that are often raised with something like this is how does it impact the civil rights of people who are labeled troublemakers - perhaps incorrectly - by police and prosecutors?" said William Davis. "When those cases come in our office they will probably garner special attention to make sure that those people's civil rights are not being infringed."

Most county prosecutors are part of trial teams that cover a particular type of crime, such as sexual or drug offenses. But the community prosecutors work on all types of crimes that occur in their area. They aim to understand relationships between criminals and keep a close watch on repeat offenders.

Community prosecution is not a new concept for the county state's attorney's office, and trouble "hot spots" have been identified for more than a decade. But state funding has not always been available to pay for the program, Weathersbee said.

Evans will focus on Annapolis public housing communities that have long been troubled by violence and drugs. Last month, a man was shot in the Robinwood community, apparently in retaliation for a shooting earlier in the day that left two Annapolis men dead and two wounded in Odenton. A 17-year-old high school student and a Severna Park man were fatally shot in separate incidents in Robinwood earlier in the year.

The Safe Streets initiative was announced this year as a comprehensive plan to reduce crime in the city by increasing cooperation between law enforcement agencies, adding lighting and security cameras and beefing up patrols of public housing. The program allocated money to pay the salary of a prosecutor handling Annapolis cases.

Evans, who has worked in Prince George's County and Anne Arundel before taking time off to raise her children, joined the community prosecution team in October through Safe Streets funding.

Having a prosecutor dedicated to the city's worst offenders ensures that they won't fall through the cracks, said Officer Hal Dalton, a spokesman for the Annapolis police. "A lot of times, courts are so busy and prosecutors are so busy that a case can be taken in isolation and maybe not seem quite so bad," he said. "The neighborhood prosecutor has experience in the geographic area and knows if a particular offender is a nuisance to a particular community. It helps them look at the whole case in the context of the community."

Ferris characterizes her two years with the office as a series of "small victories" and long days meeting with police and community leaders. "There have been quite a few cases where I've gotten good sentences that I

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