Community Prosecutions Credited With Drops In Crime

Placing prosecutors in a neighborhood instead of a courtroom is a different kind of "law and order." A University of Chicago law professor says his research shows community prosecution has had an immediate and measurable impact on violent crime.

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Throughout the country, a number of state's attorneys are using a strategy called community prosecution. Prosecutors work from offices spread out in the toughest neighborhoods. And in some Chicago communities that have adopted this strategy, there's been a significant drop in serious crime. NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.

DEBORAH WITZBURG: Good morning. We're going to get started.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: On this day, Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Deborah Witzburg is talking to a group of seniors about financial scams that target older people. She spends part of her day in court, prosecuting a mix of misdemeanors and felonies. And throughout the year, she and her fellow prosecutor, Diana Garcia-Camilo, give presentations like this session with seniors, or they talk to kids about guns or cyber bullying.

WITZBURG: Being in touch and involved in the communities in which we are located allows us to have a sense of what problems are ongoing and what sorts of challenges people are facing in their day-to-day lives. And that gives us a sense of what cases have a real quality-of-life impact on the people who live in our districts.

CORLEY: Community prosecutors like Witzburg aren't your traditional prosecutors. They do try cases, but they don't work near the courthouse. They develop close relationships with neighborhood groups and try to devise ways to prevent crime. University Chicago law professor Thomas Miles says despite its growing popularity, there aren't many studies about the effects of community prosecution.

THOMAS MILES: We often engage in these public policy changes and public policy experiments without really any evidence about whether they're going to work.

CORLEY: In his own analysis, Miles says the empirical evidence is significant and shows that in areas of Chicago where community prosecutions are a factor, instances of violent crime like rape and murder drop substantially.

MILES: The sharpest and clearest reductions were in the area of aggravated assaults. But it also appears that there are reductions in robberies and burglaries.

CORLEY: I'm standing in the parking lot of a small strip mall in Chicago's uptown neighborhood. This is one of the first places where the Cook County State's Attorney's Office tried out community prosecutions.

JOY REPELLA: The whole issue had started, actually, with the building right next door to Weiss Plaza, which was the Lawrence House.

CORLEY: Assistant State's Attorney Joy Repella supervises Cook County's four storefront community justice centers. She says the twin tower Lawrence House, once an upscale apartment complex, was trouble. The building is being rehabbed now, but Repella says not long ago, nearly 20 percent of the calls to police for service in the neighborhood came from the Lawrence House. So she worked with the community to map out a plan.

REPELLA: We met with the management there. We concentrated our prosecutions on some of the problem offenders there. So for example, I did a trial against someone who was charged with robbing an elderly man, and he had 107 prior arrests.

CORLEY: In less than a year, the calls to police dropped from 20 percent to less than 1 percent, and the focus turned to the plaza next door. The National Center for Community Prosecution says Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and nearly half of the prosecutor's offices in the country use some form of community prosecution. Cook County's experiment began in the late 1990s and ran until a budget crisis shut it down in 2007. The current state's attorney, Anita Alvarez, reinstituted it in 2009, shortly after she took office.

ANITA ALVAREZ: I could tell you, when they were first created back in the late '90s, there were people within this very office that said things like, oh, it's fluff. It's fluff. But it isn't just fluff. It's much more than that. And I think, you know, based on this study, it's clear that, you know, not every type of crime is reduced. But significantly, there are crimes that are reduced.

CORLEY: University of Chicago law professor Thomas Miles says his research on the impact of community prosecutions is just a first step. He says there needs to be more study to determine just what specific efforts in the evolving strategy help reduce some crime rates. Cheryl Corley. NPR News, Chicago.

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