The Prosecutor's Evolving Role: Seeking Justice Through Community Partnerships and Innovation.

Author:Hamann, Kristine

PROSECUTORS HAVE A CORE MISSION to protect the community and ensure justice when enforcing the law. (2) Traditionally, a prosecutor's role was a limited and relatively passive one--to evaluate and prosecute arrests made by the police. (3) But over the last forty years, there has been a dramatic transformation and expansion of prosecutors' mission, to not only vigorously prosecute criminal cases, but also to engage in crime prevention, problem solving and community partnerships. This shift is due to the recognition of a need for more complex solutions that not only seek positive outcomes for victims, but also strive for long-term solutions for defendants, potential defendants, and the community at large.

Prosecutors are uniquely situated to be effective in carrying out these new initiatives. They play a pivotal role in the criminal justice system, making decisions and exercising discretion about whether to prosecute, whom to prosecute, and how to prosecute. Also, as leaders in law enforcement, prosecutors can work with the police and other partners to improve police-community relationships and to build trust in the criminal justice system.

This article examines the modern prosecutor's evolving role in the criminal justice system with an overarching objective to share information among prosecutors and others seeking to improve the criminal justice system through innovation. (4) With over 2300 prosecutors' offices across the country, it is impossible to provide an exhaustive list of every new project that prosecutors have launched. (5) Rather, this article provides a selection of initiatives with the intent to share ideas, and to provoke conversation about what prosecutors are doing now and what prosecutors can do in the future. (6)

This article begins by examining community-based initiatives by District Attorneys' (7) offices, including: community engagement, community prosecution, resources for families and children, alternatives to incarceration, juvenile diversion programs, re-entry programs and neighborhood courts. This first part covers a wide array of programs from around the country, demonstrating the far-reaching efforts by prosecutors to engage with their communities and to implement innovative methods to improve community safety. The second part of this article covers programs run within District Attorneys' offices, including crime strategies units, conviction integrity units and ethics training for prosecutors. Finally, the article concludes by examining emerging initiatives and considering what these trends will mean for the future of prosecution.


RECOGNIZING that their responsibilities begin long before a crime occurs and continue long after a criminal case concludes, prosecutors began establishing community outreach programs and certain models of community prosecution as early as the 1980s. The number of these community- centered programs and their reach have increased tremendously over time and have taken on new significance in light of recent calls for reform of the criminal justice system. This section focuses on a sampling of these community-based programs--community engagement, community prosecution, resources for families and children, alternatives to incarceration, diversion for juveniles, re-entry programs, and neighborhood courts--and how these programs have built upon each other over time.


Prosecutors engage in community outreach in a variety of ways. Through speaking engagements, education programs, courthouse tours, sports programs, sponsorship of community events, attending community meetings, truancy reduction initiatives and a whole range of other activities, prosecutors connect with the people who they represent. New outreach programs are emerging constantly, growing in both scope and impact, working to enhance community trust in the justice system. The descriptions below highlight just a few types of newer community outreach programs.

In New York County, the DA's Office uses forfeited money from drug cases to fund "Saturday Night Lights," a program where kids aged eleven to eighteen can drop-in at one of many sites throughout the city for sports training and academic support. (8) In Baltimore, the State's Attorney's Office sponsors a summer program for rising eighth-graders, teaching them about careers in law enforcement and elsewhere within the justice system. (9) In Boston, the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office has, for seven years, organized an annual Basketball for Peace Tournament, where the DA recognizes community members as role models, and prosecutors, victim advocates, and other DA staff participate in basketball games with community youth and their parents. (10) The Clergy Ambassador Program, organized by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, runs six bi-monthly trainings for clergy about a variety of topics including community policing and the priest-penitent evidentiary privilege. (11)

In a unique approach to engage the community and provide tangible assistance to residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods, prosecutors in Delaware have taken on a program called "It's Never Not My Job." (12) Here, prosecutors personally go into communities alongside of law enforcement doing neighborhood walks to speak with community members and identify neighborhood improvement needs, such as garbage removal and street lighting. (13) In addition to seeking to improve the neighborhood and reduce crime, this program, although in its early stages, has increased cooperation with law enforcement. (14)

Virtually all prosecutors' offices participate in community education programs, recognizing them to be beneficial for crime prevention as well as for building relationships with community members. In Maryland and New Mexico, prosecutors educate students and senior citizens, teaching about fraud prevention, Internet safety, cyber bullying, alcohol and drug abuse prevention, and domestic violence. (15) In San Diego, prosecutors explain the criminal justice system during courthouse tours, local events, within schools and at career fairs. (16) In Dallas, residents can participate in a free "Citizen Prosecutor Academy" that helps members of the community to understand the work that goes on the District Attorney's Office. (17) This type of outreach is common in offices of all sizes. Even smaller offices like the seventeen-attorney office in Jackson County, Oregon participate in such outreach by sending their attorneys to speak at schools, community groups, and fraternal organizations. (18)

The importance of prosecutors' community outreach cannot be overstated. Recently, the public's faith in law enforcement has deteriorated in the wake of several high profile police shootings and homicides. (19) Additionally, many witnesses to crimes are more reluctant than ever to testify because of intimidation or lack of trust in the criminal justice system. (20) A stronger, combined police and prosecutor presence in communities is essential to combat this mistrust in law enforcement. A robust police-prosecutor partnership with their communities will benefit all by reducing crime and making communities safer.


Community prosecution, defined broadly for the purposes of this article as the use of different strategies to identify and address crime and disorder issues in local communities, has taken many forms over the past several decades. (21) One model places prosecutors in neighborhood offices or police stations to interact directly with members of the community and create targeted responses to their complaints. As early as 1990, for example, the District Attorney in Portland, Oregon introduced his Neighborhood DA. (NDA) Program, where a single prosecutor was assigned to a commercial neighborhood, targeting low-level offenders who were negatively impacting attempts to revive the economy. (22) The community prosecutor also worked to clean up downtown areas in Portland populated by homeless people and transient campers whose presence and behavior, such as littering, panhandling and urinating in public, drove away businesses." (23) By getting "residents and affected businessowners to patrol the [downtown area, also called the] gulch, post signs against trespassers, pick up trash, and remove and store property left behind at a location far from the gulch," the area became a clean stretch of parkland a year later. Additional examples where prosecutors are physically stationed in community offices or police stations include Dallas and Austin, Texas, Kalamazoo, Michigan and Washington, DC. (24)

Other offices have implemented community prosecution through so-called "zone" prosecution, where prosecutors handle only the cases from a particular geographical area. In 1991, the Brooklyn DA's Office was restructured and certain prosecutors were assigned to a caseload from one or more neighborhoods in Brooklyn, allowing them to understand and prioritize crimes based on the community's needs. (25) More recently in 2010, the Philadelphia DA's Office followed suit, assigning one-quarter of their prosecutors to neighborhood teams handling cases from one of six zones within the city. (26)

A third model of community prosecution, where non-lawyers serve as liaisons between prosecutors and the community, was established even earlier. Since 1985 in Manhattan and 1996 in Denver, community justice advocates and community affairs specialists meet with diverse community-based organizations, attending community and other neighborhood meetings and events, working with local police precincts, and providing educational outreach to address specific community problems. (27) Similar versions of this model exist all over the country today, including in Cook County, Illinois and Baltimore, Maryland. (28) The current concern about improving the community's trust in the criminal justice system is spurring prosecutors to...

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