Community prosecution is an approach to mitigating crime in a community through a proactive and decentralized approach to problem solving. The overarching goal is to work with communities to reduce the circumstances leading to crimes and nuisances and ultimately, to improve the public safety and quality of life in target communities. Community prosecution grew out of the community policing programs of the 1980s and 1990s.
Because strategies are based on the specific needs of the community in which they are located, there is variation in the problems addressed and in implementation of each approach. Some jurisdictions employing this technique are focused on felony prosecution and the prevention of violent crimes, while others work to boost neighborhood livability by tackling a host of less serious crimes and civic misconduct that contribute to blight.
Dallas has been leading the way in using community prosecution to tackle blight, largely through a strong joint venture between prosecutors and the city attorney's office. The neighborhood stabilization process is streamlined by the fact that the partnering city attorneys are already legal counsel to the entities required in nuisance abatement and prevention, such as code enforcement, utilities, and waste management.
To prioritize among neighborhoods, Dallas has identified high-blight and high-crime areas using a data-driven approach. In each of these 12 "proactive focus areas," the program has stationed community prosecutors paired with a highly trained code enforcement officer. The community-based aspect of the program is key, as it means these experts are accessible to residents in the neighborhood. Frequent and informal interaction allows community members to develop trust in the teams.
Dallas's code enforcement overcame challenges building relationships with previously disengaged communities, which were frustrated due to its formerly reactive processes. The teams also practice active community engagement, holding two types of ACTION (or All Coming Together in Our Neighborhood) meetings on a regular basis. Citizen ACTION meetings are not simply intended to collect feedback from residents; rather, they bring neighborhood leaders together to solve problems. Government ACTION team meetings then bring together street-level city staff—fire, police, sanitation, and utility personnel—to develop solutions for individual properties, breaking down silos to handle issues quickly with the relevant entities. Community prosecutors also have begun to partner with city planners and economic development teams to enable a clean transfer of a parcel issue from blight remediation to redevelopment. Dallas's community prosecutors and code enforcement officers are hired on a very selective basis, which has led to teams of passionate, well-informed people who know their assigned community well. Elected officials and city staff often call upon the program's attorneys because of their deep knowledge of the neighborhoods in which they work.
If required, the local team involves the responsible parties associated with problem properties during inspection with the code enforcement officers. To enforce code-related ordinances, Dallas community prosecutors file civil lawsuits. If a code inspector writes a ticket for a criminal violation, the program's attorneys will serve as prosecutors. Civil attorneys often use negotiation to avoid court appearances, and thus the community prosecutors' first recourse in remediating problems means working with the responsible party to mitigate the problem, with litigation available if it becomes necessary to utilize tools like injunctions, property seizures, and stay-away orders. To induce voluntary compliance with absentee investors, code enforcement officers present extensive background research demonstrating the poor conditions of the properties. Recently, community prosecutors in Dallas forged a solution to a local ownership issue when the team pushed the Texas legislature to amend its estates code to help deal with confused heirship of properties.
Robert W. Hood, director of the Community Prosecution and Violent Crime Division of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys,1 thinks that cities in the Southeast may be able to learn from community prosecution models in other cities tackling spillover effects of the foreclosure crisis. Hood outlined the ideal conditions he sees in places with highly functional community prosecution strategies: an existing use of community policing, a data-driven prosecutors' office, and an active, engaged community with strong neighborhood leaders. An often overlooked aspect of community prosecution relates to funding sources. According to Hood, the private sector is underutilized in this space, and businesses, insurers, and mortgagers have an interest in not losing their property interests in a neighborhood. The private sector can be tapped if it realizes its interests are aligned in keeping a particular submarket(s) strong, Hood noted.
The Dallas program was jump-started with a Department of Justice Planning Grant to design the program and fund the first prosecutor. The partnership with code enforcement and the housing component also allowed the use of capped Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) public safety grants for the initial funding, and a Department of Justice Planning Grant aided in program design and funding for the first prosecutor. Justice Assistant Grants (JAG) for law enforcement and other crime reduction programs have also been used along the way. However, the program is now almost entirely funded by city general funds, as Dallas has realized the value of the program's strategic work done in neighborhoods.
For more perspectives on tackling neighborhood blight, see the discussion paper "Blight Remediation in the Southeast: Local Approaches to Design and Implementation."
By Shelley Price, former intern in the Atlanta Fed's community and economic development group
1 The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys is a nonprofit that utilizes the U.S. Department of Justice's Training and Technical Assistant Grants to convene community prosecution teams nationwide at conferences and over a listserv and also to provide free consultations to jurisdictions on community prosecution strategies, among other services.