State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein announced his plan for community prosecution in Baltimore City January 2, just as his term in office hit the one year mark.
Aiming to create stronger ties between residents and the authorities who dedicate themselves to a safer Baltimore, community prosecution is a technique first introduced in the early 1990s and is now used in states across the nation such as Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, and Washington D.C.
Taking an innovative approach to lowering crime, community prosecution seeks to maximize important relationships with business owners, community associations, and citizens who have vested interest in their neighborhoods. While community prosecution asks more of prosecutors than what is traditionally in the job description, the change allows for a stronger focus on preventing crime rather than just handing out sentences to punish it. Community prosecution also puts attention on smaller crimes such as vandalism, which lead to a lack of respect for community, and in turn produce breeding grounds for larger, more serious crimes just off a neighborhood’s negative physical appearance.
“I think it’s a very good step in the right direction- making it citizen oriented as opposed to court oriented prosecution,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of the 14th District. “Prosecutors will begin to know the communities they’re representing and begin to connect the dots on how people are affected by the crime that is being committed in their neighborhoods,” said Clarke. “It’s always helpful when law enforcement personnel know the people behind the issues.”
Previous guidelines required prosecutors to tackle cases from all corners of the city based solely on the nature of the crime. The four former categories of prosecution, which were firearms, general felony, misdemeanor jury trials, and narcotics, have now each been replaced by three geographic zones.
The neighborhoods of the Eastern, Northeastern and Southeastern police districts will all fall under Zone One. Zone Two prosecutors will handle all cases within the Central, Southern and Western police districts, with remaining communities from the Northwestern, Southwestern and Northern police districts making up Zone Three.
While this will be a shock to the prosecution system in Baltimore, in total, only about 60 prosecutors and 20 members of supporting staff will be affected.
Bernstein’s new program is a more detailed approach to the work done by the 9 community coordinator positions that were created by previous state’s attorney, Patricia C. Jessamy who fought hard to keep funds for the program. Those positions succumbed to strict budget cuts in May 2011 when they were eliminated by Bernstein.
Under Jessamy’s direction, community liaisons- one for each of the nine police districts in Baltimore, assisted victims with pretrial procedures, prepared court dockets, and verified facts for prosecution cases among other duties. Now, with the middle man cut out of the equation, Bernstein’s plan will call for prosecutors themselves to entrench themselves in the community, studying and mapping out crime patterns to more effectively eradicate them.