State's Attorney Marna McLendon plans to send county prosecutors into County communities this fall to talk about ways residents can help them fight crime.
The goal -- perhaps six months down the line -- is the establishment of a liaison program that would let communities help set priorities for the prosecution of crimes in their neighborhoods.
The initial focus will be on juveniles, Ms. McLendon told the County Council during a half-hour briefing on her plans yesterday morning. The number of juvenile arrests for serious crimes has increased steadily over the past five years.
"I want to begin a dialogue to ensure that the state's attorney's office is responsive to [community] issues as well as having the community help us solve problems as they arise," Ms. McLendon said.
Sometimes, prosecution of crimes affecting a community -- frequent vandalism, for example -- might be less vigorous than a neighborhood wants because prosecutors might be looking at cases from a countywide perspective, Ms. McLendon said.
In Columbia, for example, juvenile vandalism is a significant problem that is worsening, many residents believe. The Columbia Association spent about $80,000 last year to repair damage done to tot lots, park pavilions and community-owned property.
Those losses pale in comparison with more serious crimes countywide in Howard -- six rapes, 46 robberies, 295 burglaries, 1,579 larcenies, and 263 auto thefts in the first three months of this year.
A neighborhood liaison program would let residents talk with prosecutors about problems specific to their neighborhoods and give residents a chance to help set priorities for which crimes to ++ prosecute first, Ms. McLendon said.
Ms. McLendon said prosecutors' computers are unable to tally crime statistics by neighborhood but that the county is small enough to permit prosecutors assigned to an area to identify a crime problem.
A liaison program also could help residents become more knowledgeable about some of the frustrations and problems prosecutors face when trying cases or getting cases ready for trial, Ms. McLendon said. "Every case has problems," she said.
Education in the broadest sense -- assigning prosecutors to work with specific communities to establish rapport, explaining how the state's attorney's office works and listening to residents' concerns -- is an essential part of the dialogue she hopes to establish, Ms. McLendon said.
She stressed that the liaison idea is at a "very preliminary stage."
County Council members were generally supportive. "There are things going on [in communities] that the prosecution might want to know about," said Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat. "The basic key step is an educational one -- telling people how the court system works and the consequences of an illegal activity, whether minor or serious."
Ms. McLendon should have no trouble finding community groups for prosecutors to address, Ms. Lorsung said.
"Clearly, we have the folks," she said. "The structure is there, the interest is there."
Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, agreed, saying, "Anything that bespeaks of education and prevention, I am supportive of. Regarding juveniles, prevention is the way to go. It is better to deal with crime on the front end rather than the back end. It is good for [prosecutors] to get involved and go to meetings."
Republicans Darrel Drown of Ellicott City and Dennis Schrader of Kings Contrivance also were supportive but added a note of caution.
Mr. Drown said the state's attorney's office should retain its right to set prosecutorial priorities, and Mr. Schrader said he was concerned that it not be called "community prosecution," the working name.
"I'm glad that she came in early," Mr. Schrader said. "Everything government can do to get more interactive with the community is what we should be doing. I applaud the concept. [But] I want to make sure we have thought through what the objectives are. We don't want to send the wrong message."
Ms. McLendon said she will be attending a workshop sponsored by the American Prosecutors' Research Institute this month to learn how similar programs have worked elsewhere.
"The idea is not to copy something else," she said, "but to hear about other programs -- what failed, what worked and what might be best for us as we begin our strategizing."