The recent conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice focused on addressing national trends in prosecution, crime prevention, and criminal justice strategies. Among the Opening Day speakers was Cyrus Vance, the New York County District Attorney (DA), who set the tone for the conference with his thesis “a crime prevented is much more valuable than a crime prosecuted.”
A prevalent theme of the conference was how law enforcement, both police and prosecutors, can work together with communities and neighborhoods to fight crime. To that end, two panels addressed “New Perspectives on Prosecution,” and “Community Prosecution” and were comprised of several district attorneys from New York, Boston, Oregon, Texas, and across the nation who have had success with innovative community prosecution strategies, such as the placement of Assistant DAs (one preferred to call them “Neighborhood DAs”) out in the community to identify and solve problems that may have already resulted in crime or may have the potential to do so. It involves bringing all of the relevant available government resources and legal tools to bear. When prosecutions are brought, they are handled vertically from the beginning of the case to disposition by the same local community prosecutor. Close cooperation and relationship building with community groups and leaders is essential to building trust (against the street code of “snitches get stitches”) which leads to even greater cooperation. An anecdote was told about how police asked a young man, who was dying of gunshot wounds, if he knew who had shot him. He indicated that he did but with his last breath said, “But I ain’t telling you nothing.”
Several panelists talked about how they have used a “Weed and Seed” type approach, bringing aggressive enforcement and prosecutions, especially to previously identified recidivists, to clear an area of crime and then follow up with community based prevention resources. A representative from theRed Hook Community Center in Brooklyn discussed the value of community prosecution from the community perspective. He described how they use focus groups and surveys to gauge community feelings, of how important it is to include the community in law enforcement and prosecution actions, and the value of accountability and transparency. He pointed out that residents’ perceptions about crime are as important as the actual crime rates. Fear of crime, he reminded us, leads to more crime as residents withdraw from community involvement allowing deterioration to set in.
As Crime Prevention Month (October) approaches it may be helpful to consider expanding such proactive crime prevention strategies.