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America's Prosecutors Look to Crime Prevention

In the American justice system, criminal prosecutions are conducted on behalf of the state by elected or appointed government officials called district attorneys, and their assistants. Until recently, their main concern has been to indict and convict suspects after a crime has been committed. That may be changing. Today's district attorneys - or "D.A."s, as they are called in law enforcement circles - are shifting their focus to crime reduction and prevention. This week, scores of district attorneys from around the nation are meeting in New York to share strategies, during the National Crime Summit.

There were many professions represented among the crowd that filled the auditorium of John Jay College of Criminal Justice to capacity on Wednesday and Thursday. But Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, whose office co-sponsored the conference, said that all the attendees - district attorneys, criminologists, social workers and police were seeking the same practical result: effective law enforcement and public safety, which in today's world, means far more than merely the number of criminal convictions a D.A. can obtain in the courts.

"But the real measure of prosecution is our ability, using all our tools as prosecutors, to effect sustained, long-term crime prevention and crime reduction," said Cyrus Vance. "Because a crime prevented is far better than a crime prosecuted."

The prosecution of repeat offenders is a huge drain on a district attorney's resources. Of special concern are youths with a history of crime. They often get convicted in the juvenile courts, then go on to some form of youth detention, only to commit further crimes upon their release. When they commit crimes as adults, they burden state and federal law enforcement agencies and their prison systems.

To help break this pattern, Boston's district attorney, Daniel Conley, favors a so-called "carrot and stick" approach. Every month, Conley gets a list of about 30 young repeat offenders who are scheduled for release. He and his federal counterpart from the U.S attorney's office then meet with them as a group and inform them of the likelihood of severely enhanced punishment if they are arrested and convicted again. That's the "stick." At the same time, they promise social services, as well as pastoral and other support to those who decide to end their lives of crime. That's the "carrot."

"A lot of times, you get a look of indignation; they are getting out in 30 or 60 days and they don't want to hear from you," said Daniel Conley. "But every so often, we have offenders come up and say 'I think you were talking about me!' And then the 'carrot' is there. The social workers talk about a panoply of options that they have when they get out and the religious folks are there to support them in any way they can. That's been going on for about three or four years, and statistically we are just starting to study it. But the recidivism rates have dropped with this population."

Domestic violence continues to be a common crime in most jurisdictions, and one which individual offenders often repeat. At the start of his career as a prosecutor in 1990, Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes focused mainly on aiding victims of abuse. He was deeply inspired by the experience of watching his mother beaten repeatedly by his father, who was an alcoholic. Nowadays, Hynes tries to prevent future violence by helping abusers to change.

"I've come to understand that it's very important to have programs for batterers [such as] anger management [and] alcohol and substance abuse," said Charles Hynes. "I have often said that if my father had had the same kind of therapeutic programs we have in Brooklyn now opportunities, then maybe we would have had a relationship. Instead we didn't talk for the last 19 years of life. So he lost his only son and I lost his father. So it is very important to understand that in the dynamics of containing domestic violence, you have a piece in there - a significant piece - on recovery."

Clearly, for these programs to be effective, there must be cooperation between government agencies, such as the departments of health and social services and police and other law enforcement personnel. This interdependent approach is critical, according to Michael D. Schrunk, who has served as Multnomah County Oregon's district attorney since 1981.

"And I can't say enough for the collaboration [with] a lot of different partners, including the federal government, they are great allies because they have resources," said Michael D. Schrunk. "After all, they can print money. We at the local level and the states have to balance at the end of the fiscal year."

There are other balances to strike as well. For example, when an illegal immigrant is arrested for a crime, federal immigration authorities may wish to start deportation procedures immediately, which collides with a D.A.'s interest in building a prosecution slowly, and finding justice for the victim. Immigrants who are deported rather than imprisoned for their crimes often return to the United States and break the law again. Adjudicating these and other concerns is an ongoing effort for the jurisdictions, one which will likely become an increasing problem with an increasingly mobile world population.