Baltimore to overhaul prosecution strategy

On a cold December evening, Baltimore's top prosecutor stood before a roomful of city residents, most of whom would have given anything to be somewhere else. They had all lost a loved one to violence and were assembled to remember the dead.

"Although I've only been the state's attorney for just about a year, it is something that I am single-minded about," Gregg L. Bernstein told the audience. "We are working harder and harder every day in an effort to reduce violence."

Being there was part of his plan. Bernstein believes that connecting with the community is key to making the city safer — so much so, that he's overhauling his office to do so. Today, the first anniversary of his official swearing-in, Bernstein will launch a "community prosecution" concept. It's his biggest initiative to date, and it will alter the way the city handles serious crimes.

"It's a sea-change," Bernstein said in an interview.

Community prosecution is an umbrella term used to describe a range of programs that connect prosecutors with residents.

Baltimore already had a version of it under Bernstein's predecessor, Patricia C. Jessamy, who stationed "community coordinators" at the area's nine police districts and charged them with acting as liaisons between law enforcement agents and city residents. But budget restraints led to the end of those outreach positions this past spring.

Now Bernstein wants prosecutors to act as liaisons themselves, turning them into neighborhood specialists able to recognize criminal patterns.

To that end, he's taking some of his most experienced people — those who handle the felony and misdemeanor jury trial cases in the city's Circuit Court — and dividing them into three caseload "zones" that correspond to police districts and associated neighborhoods.

Under Jessamy, and Bernstein this past year, Circuit Court prosecutors were largely split into four major units that took cases from all over the city based on the category of crime: narcotics, firearms, general felony and misdemeanor jury trials.

But Bernstein is now doing away with all those divisions and moving those prosecutors into the zone system.

It's a significant shift that affects about 60 prosecutors and 20 support staff members, whose initial reaction was "trepidation and uncertainty" over how the change could affect their jobs, Bernstein said, adding that people are "starting to come around" to the idea.

Zone One encompasses cases from the Eastern, Northeastern and Southeastern police districts (including neighborhoods such as Barclay, Lauraville and Brewers Hill). Zone Two handles the Central, Southern and Western police districts (and neighborhoods including the Inner Harbor, Brooklyn and Poppleton, among others). And Zone Three takes on the rest from the Northwestern, Southwestern and Northern police districts.

The prosecutors assigned to the cases will still have their headquarters downtown in the Circuit Court buildings on Calvert Street, but their focus will be on crime in the zones. Cases there will still be allocated by type. For example, if there's a shooting in Hampden, which is overseen by the Northern Police District, a Zone Three prosecutor assigned to firearms cases will take it on.

The zone prosecutors are expected to meet with neighborhood leaders, attend community meetings and work closely with police, said Deputy State's Attorney Elizabeth Embry, who's overseeing much of the rollout. The hope is that they will get to know a region and begin to understand its needs based on the kinds of crimes that occur there.

That will enable them to build better cases and, possibly, develop customized prevention strategies in partnership with police, Embry said.

Many city prosecutors won't be affected by the change, including those who work in the lower district and juvenile courts and certain specialty units, such as economic crimes, felony domestic violence and sexual offenses. Those types of crimes cross geographic boundaries, unlike gang and drug activity, which tend to cluster in particular regions.

The homicide division also will remain intact as a stand-alone unit, though its prosecutors will be assigned to work a particular zone.

An advisory team assembled by the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of business and civic leaders, studied the best practices of prosecutors around the country, and it recommended in a report released a couple of days after Bernstein took office that he use the community prosecution model.

Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III is cautiously optimistic about the plan.

The concept is "what the city needs, it's what communities need," he said, adding that it will be challenging in practice. "It's a very big bite [Bernstein is] taking there. The theory sounds good, but there is still a large volume of work" associated with carrying it out.

Community prosecution has roots in Manhattan, where the district attorney's office assigned a "community affairs officer" to work with police and neighborhood representatives in 1985, according to the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. A few years later, an Oregon district attorney launched the first formal community prosecution program to help reduce drug crimes, and soon others followed. Brooklyn, N.Y., was the first to try the zone model, dividing many of its 400 prosecutors into five geographic areas in 1991.

The District of Columbia tried a version of the concept on a small scale in the mid-1990s, focusing on one of the city's seven police districts and assigning prosecutors to neighborhoods. Douglas F. Gansler, now Maryland's attorney general, was working in Washington then as an assistant U.S. attorney. At the end of the two-year pilot, he said, the community prosecution region went from being the second-highest in crime to the second-lowest in D.C.

Gansler brought the idea to Montgomery County when he was elected state's attorney there in 1998. The idea has grown increasingly popular since, with more than half of the prosecutors' offices in the nation saying they employ some form of it.

"Community prosecution is where every prosecutor's office in the country should now be and certainly will be in the future, because it makes sense," Gansler said.

It's hard to quantify the effect, however. It often has to do more with perception — job satisfaction, better communication — than data, experts said. The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys released a guide last year of "performance indicators" that prosecutors can use to measure their success. The guide recommends surveying the community and victims who deal with prosecutors and calculating interactions, among other things.

"It is changing from the traditional model where you would measure performance on maybe conviction rates or attrition of cases through the office, and now you're looking at other areas," said Steven Jansen, vice president of the association and a former director of the National Center for Community Prosecution.

He compared Baltimore's plans to the community prosecution program implemented in Philadelphia in November 2010. It also uses a zone model but takes the idea a step further by also splitting courtrooms into zones, bringing the judges into the system.

Baltimore is starting smaller, in the prosecutor's office, and Gansler urged "baby steps."

"I think Gregg understands the realities of the office," Gansler said. "He'll have to sort of custom-fit community prosecution to Baltimore."

Said Bernstein: "That's my job, to kind of press people for change. They may not want to do it, but in the end, [it will lead to] more efficient, better prosecutions."


Community prosecution zones

Zone 1: Encompasses neighborhoods in the Eastern, Northeastern and Southeastern police districts, and cases that pass through the Eastside District Court building on East North Avenue.

Zone 2: Encompasses neighborhoods in the Central, Southern and Western police districts, and cases that pass through the Hargrove District Court building on East Patapsco Avenue.

Zone 3: Encompasses neighborhoods in the Northwestern, Southwestern and Northern police districts, and cases that pass through the Borgerding District Court building on Wabash Avenue.