Two months into his four-year term, Howard State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone is focusing more attention on the courtroom and is planning to redirect the community prosecution efforts heralded by his predecessor.
Some top staffers who spent little time in the courtroom under former State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon say McCrone has asked them to take more cases and to occasionally oversee the daily caseload in court - with some recently assigned to high-profile prosecutions.
McCrone said he also is working to refocus the outside efforts of prosecutors, preferring to stress criminal justice issues over the more generic community bridge-building they were often asked to do during McLendon's terms.
And while he is still fine-tuning his office's outside role, he said he wants to make sure prosecutors don't duplicate the work of police in the county's neighborhoods - a charge leveled by Howard police Chief Wayne Livesay last year - and is looking into the best way to dedicate staff to community efforts without taking lawyers out of the courtroom or taking up too much of the time they need to prepare cases.
"We're just trying to evaluate what is productive and what is not productive," he said. He added that two efforts - talks to middle school classes and with school officials to identify problem children - remain unchanged.
During her two terms, McLendon became known for her work in the area of community prosecution, which involves outreach and problem-solving. In 2001, her office earned national recognition and a nearly $196,000 federal grant that allowed her to assign a prosecutor full time to two Columbia communities.
The effort involved the entire office. Each of the assistant state's attorneys was required to make contacts with communities, attend meetings with homeowner associations, housing groups and others and submit monthly reports.
Last week, McLendon said community prosecution works best when "it's about long-term relationships, and not about problems or just getting out when something happens."
But she said she's not surprised that McCrone is re-evaluating the concept.
"Obviously, anyone new should be taking a hard look at everything," said McLendon, who relocated to Scottsdale, Ariz., in December.
How community prosecution would change over the course of McCrone's term was unclear last week.
Prosecutors say they haven't been given any directives and are in a bit of a "holding pattern" - responding to community requests but making no new overtures - while they await word from their new boss. But some said they feel less pressure to attend meetings or send out unsolicited overtures of assistance. Prosecutors are also no longer required to submit monthly reports about their efforts.
Despite the uncertainty, District Court prosecutor Claude deVastey, who leads a team of prosecutors assigned to much of eastern Howard, said she's still working with her communities as she has in the past.
"We're just waiting to see what it is they want us to do next," she said.
McCrone said many of the prosecutors are aware that "I'm cutting out a lot of the unnecessary meetings for them."
Still, he stressed that he has no plans to do away with community prosecution - just to modify it.
The effort would likely have "less emphasis on being proactive or getting out there and going to meetings," said Deputy State's Attorney Dario Broccolino.
In some cases, the changing role will be a bit more obvious. Assistant State's Attorney Lara Weathersbee, who was assigned to Oakland Mills and Owen Brown after the office received the national grant, previously spent the bulk of her time in those communities, maintaining an office and regular hours there. Since McCrone took office, she has been in the courtroom more and recently was assigned to handle a western Howard County murder case.
McCrone said he hopes to eventually reassign many of that job's duties, as well as efforts in other communities, to a new nonattorney position that will require County Council approval. The prosecutors would provide backup to the new hire.
"If I have my way, it would start being a person who's not a prosecutor," he said. "I'd like to get the prosecutor focused on the prosecution function."
Community officials said they would like to see the relationships that they have developed through community prosecution continue.
When the program started, Carole MacPhee, the executive director of Columbia Housing Corp., said there was "a lot of give-and-take" between her office and McLendon's to address problems on the nonprofit housing company's properties - such as loitering and drinking.
She still maintains her contacts with the office and said she has few concerns about any changes McCrone will make.
"I know if I call him and say [we have] this problem, he'll be there," she said.
In Oakland Mills, David Hatch, who chairs the village board, said his wish list includes "a few more hours allocated" to his community.
Weathersbee has been a valuable resource, attending meetings and talking to residents who need help with problem-solving, Hatch said.
The prosecutor has provided "a better handle that there is justice available," he said. "She has given the community good sense that help is there and it is effective."