At his swearing-in ceremony last week, Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein reiterated his campaign pledge to reorganize the prosecutor's office in order to aggressively go after the violent repeat offenders who commit most of the city's serious crime. Mr. Bernstein has named George J. Hazel, Elizabeth Embry and Cecilia Januszkiewicz as his top three deputies charged with implementing the overhaul and he has laid out a roadmap for achieving his most important goals. Here's a blueprint for the kind of changes that would allow the department to be more efficient and effective:
Focus on bad guys with guns. During the campaign, Mr. Bernstein criticized his predecessor, former City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, for often failing to win convictions against the city's most violent offenders because prosecutors were unprepared or neglected to coordinate with police. Fixing that will require reallocating resources among the various divisions of the state's attorney's office and adopting a more strategic approach from the time of arrest all the way through trial and sentencing.
Repair relationships between prosecutors and police. Viewers of TV crime dramas such as "Law & Order" and "CSI" get the impression of a seamless coordination between police and prosecutors in the fight against crime. But that's not what happens in the real world, where too often Baltimore police and prosecutors end up pointing fingers at each other's failures rather than focusing on building constructive relationships. Mr. Bernstein says he wants to change that; he could start by publicly supporting City Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's call for tougher mandatory minimum sentences for gun offenders, which is also a major legislative priority for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake this year.
More broadly, it's important for prosecutors to establish a culture of cooperation that encourages them to begin working with police as soon as an investigation begins rather than wait until the morning of a trial, as has happened in the past, particularly in complex cases involving violent crimes. The state's attorney's office can also offer the department its expertise in report writing, trial testimony and other topics that will make officers better presenters and witnesses in court.
Maximize the department's resources. Mr. Bernstein has said he wants to harness technology to make his office more productive. It's outrageous that city prosecutors currently don't even have reliable voice-mail to get messages from victims and potential witnesses. More broadly, the department needs to create databases that will allow it to analyze crime trends and identify problem areas in particular parts of the city. Accurate statistics would also make the state's attorney's office more transparent and accountable because the public would then be able to see for itself how well the office is doing and where it needs improvement.
Equally important as improving the department's technical capabilities is building up its human capital through staff development. Mr. Bernstein says he wants to hire a full-time training coordinator to help the staff attorneys improve their performance. The training regimen would include refresher programs for both new and experienced attorneys in such areas as criminal procedure, trial techniques, mock trials, etc., and also would bring in outside lecturers on specific topics and send assistant prosecutors to intensive two-week training programs outside the state.
None of this will happen overnight, but if Mr. Bernstein sticks to his word, some changes should be apparent within a year. A lot will be riding on the initial charging decisions prosecutors make immediately after an arrest, when they determine how to keep the most serious offenders behind bars while directing low-level, non-violent first-time offenders into alternative programs that don't clog up the court system. That's crucial in order to make the best use of limited resources so prosecutors can concentrate on the career criminals who pose the greatest threat to public safety. Until the state's attorney's office gets a handle on that, nothing else will matter.