The Baltimore State's Attorney's Office on Friday announced the formation of a "special victims unit" to prosecute cases similar to those seen on the "Law & Order: SVU" crime drama of the same name.
Baltimore's SVU, which combines the city's family violence and sex offense divisions, will focus on crimes of violence — including sexual assault and abuse, domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking — against "women, children, vulnerable adults and other victims of sexual assault and domestic violence," according to the prosecutor's office.
"These are extremely important cases that involve victims with unique needs. We hope and expect that this reorganization will produce better outcomes both in court and for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence," State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said in a statement.
He appointed Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Phelps, who joined the office in 1998 as a law clerk and became a prosecutor there in 2001, to run the new unit. Phelps has handled firearms and homicide cases for the city.
"Lisa has the skills, commitment, and vision to analyze complicated cases, partner with outside agencies and organizations, and address the myriad issues that arise everyday," Bernstein said. "We are confident that she will develop the Unit into one of the premier divisions in our Office."
Sharon Holback, former chief of the sexual offense division the prosecutor's office, will move to homicide as an assistant state's attorney.
Former family violence division chief Julie Drake left "to pursue other opportunities" in mid May, according to State's Attorney Spokesman Mark Cheshire, and the unit was temporarily headed by Gregg Solomon during the transition to SVU.
The new combined city SVU is made up of three divisions, each focused on a separate area: child victims, adult victims and district court cases.
"This reorganization will allow the Unit to address the specific issues encountered in these cases in a more effective and efficient manner as well as to focus on the specific needs of victims," the prosecutor's office said in its statement. "For example, prosecutors in the child-victim team will now be focused exclusively on the needs of children, enabling them to better understand, support, and interact with this unique set of victims."
The reorganization is based on a review of best practices in other prosecutor offices, prosecutors said. Bernstein won office in the 2010 Democratic primary, which decided the race, by promising to target violent — particularly repeat — offenders and to shake up the prosecutors' office through innovation.
He's since added a required training curriculum for staff and implemented several new programs, including a convictions integrity unit to ensure the validity of past prosecutions, a police integrity unit to review officer conduct and a major investigations unit to focus on longer, big-picture projects. He also reshuffled staff into a community-based prosecution model, which focuses prosecutors on particular neighborhoods to better track local crime.