Baltimore state's attorney wants to shift prosecutors into neighborhoods

Committee studying feasibility of model recently adopted in Philadelphia

February 09, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein said Wednesday that he wants to assign assistant state's attorneys to geographic areas to track repeat offenders plaguing their communities.

Prosecutors currently focus on specific types of offenses, such as drug cases, general felonies or homicides. The community prosecution model would divide the city into zones, with a group of prosecutors working more collaboratively with police to track and build cases against targeted individuals.

"They would be focusing on all crimes in that particular area," Bernstein told members of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. "The goal is to have them prosecute defendants, not cases."

Such a model is used in cities across the country, including Philadelphia, where Bernstein said he recently met with District Attorney Seth Williams. It is also done with varying effort in places from Manhattan and Brooklyn to Anne Arundel County, and was tried out for 18 months in a Baltimore neighborhood in 2003 using grant money.

Bernstein said in an interview that he has formed a committee of prosecutors from across his divisions to study the issue, determining whether it can be effective with the office's resources.

"We don't want to make a change just for the sake of change," he said.

Williams, who has been on the job for about a year, made community prosecutions a campaign platform in Philadelphia, where like Bernstein he defeated a long-serving incumbent. That program took nearly 11 months to implement, but according to news reports, the vast majority of the 75,000 cases handled each year now go through the community division, with prosecutors sticking with cases from start to finish.

Homicides, rapes and family violence cases there still have offense-specific prosecutors.

Former State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy implemented a pilot community prosecution program in 2003 in the Pigtown community, assigning specific prosecutors to neighborhoods to aggressively pursue quality of life and nuisance crimes. When the grant money expired, so did the program.

Bernstein said that in Baltimore, the zones would not likely be matched to police districts, and prosecutors would become more engaged in neighborhoods by making visits or working occasionally from community offices.

The proposal was one of a slew of initiatives Bernstein, who has been on the job for about six weeks, brought up at Wednesday's meeting of criminal justice leaders.

Bernstein said he wants to track case outcomes — something Jessamy steadfastly avoided — and dig into the entrenched problem of officers who fail to appear in court — a longstanding frustration for Jessamy. He has also assigned a top deputy to devise ways to clear the massive number of backlogged warrants.

More broadly, Bernstein said, he plans to consolidate office space in the city's two downtown courthouses to allow prosecutors to work together more closely.

"You just can't be effective if you're not in a contiguous space," he said.

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