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Remarks of Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

National Community Prosecution Conference

Monday, September 27, 2010
Washington, DC

       Thank you so much, Jim, and it's great to be here. I look around this room and see so many familiar faces and leaders - and heroes of mine like Seth Williams and Cy Vance - in the field of prosecution in this country.

       I first want to acknowledge and thank Glenn and Ron - two former Assistant U.S. Attorneys under Eric Holder - for their tremendous leadership. Glenn, you've done so much in our neighboring county of Prince George's, and, Ron, it's great having you as a colleague here at the Department.

       And I also want to thank Steve and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and Julius and the Center for Court Innovation for hosting this conference and for their tremendous work in supporting community prosecution.

       Finally, I really want to express appreciation to Jim, Kim, and our Bureau of Justice Assistance for all their hard work to support the community prosecution effort at OJP. This issue is actually a passion for them, and I'm fortunate I can benefit from their guidance and energy.

       Before I begin, I have the pleasure of introducing a videotaped message from the Attorney General. Many of you know the important role Eric Holder played in developing the community prosecution model here in the District of Columbia, and he carried that commitment into his position as Attorney General. He couldn't be here today, but he wanted to say a few words in appreciation for what all of you are doing.

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       Well, clearly, we have an advocate in the Attorney General.

       Under his leadership, there is no doubt that this Justice Department supports the work of community prosecutors. And I know that's probably music to all of our ears. But because Eric Holder has a very personal stake in this issue, that means we can expect to be held to a high standard here.

       Now, my background is not as a prosecutor. I've spent my career on the criminal justice policy side. I've certainly worked closely with prosecutors - I'm married to a former prosecutor - and I'm familiar with your issues. And I obviously work for a veteran prosecutor in the Attorney General. But none of that makes me a field-tested expert. So what could I have to say about the role of the 21st century prosecutor?

       Well, for one thing, I've worked for two of the most committed prosecutors I know - Eric Holder and Janet Reno - and I know what they think about effective prosecution. They believe that the prosecutor's core mission is to seek justice and maintain the integrity of the criminal justice system - as I suspect do all of you who came here today. The justice system often ends up with conviction and incarceration, but it is about much more than that.

       As the ABA standards for the prosecution function state - and all of you know this - "The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."

       The criminal justice system's integrity comes down to questions of credibility and legitimacy. It's stating the obvious that for people to have faith in the system, they first have to have confidence that prosecutors and other law enforcement officers are there, in effect, on behalf of the community.

       One of the most positive trends we've seen in the past 15 years, in my view, is toward greater community involvement in the justice system. I often wonder if this is a contributor to the great decline in crime rates we've seen in recent years.

       Community policing and things like drug courts get most of the attention here, but I think it's time we look at the role that community prosecution has played. And this makes real sense, because you all - prosecutors - are central pillars of the justice system, and your role is critical as drivers of policy and drivers of change.

       For close to 20 years now, prosecutors have used the community prosecution philosophy in their jurisdictions to become problem-solvers. And I have to say - looking around this room - it warms my heart to see so many of the pioneers of this movement here with us today. You've embraced an ever-expanding role as community leader and partner in crime prevention efforts.

       Your work - your ambassadorship, if you will - has resulted in serious change. A survey taken just a few years ago of 879 prosecutors' offices found that 38 percent reported practicing community prosecution. 55 percent reported being involved in initiatives associated with community prosecution.

       Over the last two decades, community prosecution has evolved from an experiment in a handful of offices around the country to a mature philosophy that has influenced prosecution nationwide. Like any philosophy, it has come over time to mean different things to different practitioners. Even the labels applied to it are different, - whether it's Joe Hynes' "Zone Prosecution" efforts in Brooklyn, or Michael Schrunk's "Neighborhood District Attorneys Unit" in Portland, Oregon. It goes by many names.

       But one thing is certain - it has fundamentally changed the landscape of criminal justice. No longer is our system one driven by case processing and dispositional outcomes; it now has a more pro-active, problem-solving orientation. And this is great news, because it means that we're finally focused on reducing crime, changing offender behavior, and getting results for the community, not just processing cases and punishing criminals.

       As many of you can attest, this change hasn't come easily. It's required changing culture in the system and a re-thinking of roles and of what our goals in the justice system should be. It's meant letting go of our own views of what we think should be a priority and accepting input from those who live with crime and disorder every day.

       Violent crimes may not always be the primary concerns of community residents. As you know, they may care more about lower-level quality of life issues like vandalism, disorderly conduct, and aggressive panhandling. Of course, as many of you can attest, serious violence often is the problem and needs aggressive attention.

       In communities where prosecutors like all of you have made connections with residents, people are feeling empowered. I think of Thomas Zugibe and the Comm Pross Unit in Rockland County, New York. He and his Senior Assistant D.A., Kristen Conklin, forged a partnership with police and citizens that resulted in the arrest of several suspects on welfare fraud and narcotics charges. This ultimately enabled them to take down a cocaine selling operation.

       I think of creative approaches like the one that Maureen Milligan has used in Dallas. An after-hours club there was the source of 25 percent of violent crime in police beat 115. Nearby business owners would complain about returning to their buildings on Monday mornings to find them pockmarked with AK-47 rounds. The D.A.'s office and the Police Department's Nuisance Abatement Unit used a combination of criminal and code violations to shut the club down.

       And there's the Wayne County Community Prosecution Unit in Detroit, where Steve [Jansen] worked. Assistant prosecuting attorneys there work with local and federal law enforcement to investigate serious, violent felonies that the communities have identified as persistent problems. Community prosecutors provide legal guidance to law enforcement, issue investigative subpoenas, and vertically prosecute what they call "special attention" cases.

       These are the kinds of creative, collaborative approaches I think are needed if we're really serious about reducing crime - and not just winning cases. They make full use of the prosecutor's arsenal and the prosecutor's leadership, and they apply smart-on-crime strategies like targeted enforcement and community engagement. Law enforcement agencies have used these methods to great success in many jurisdictions. Community prosecution takes them to the next level.

       So we've seen some innovative programs developed using the community prosecution model. I think our challenge now is to take that model to scale - no small challenge, especially in these difficult economic times. But this is also an opportunity. We now have the benefit of a growing body of evidence about what works in preventing and reducing crime, and I think you can use this to your advantage.

       For instance, one of the hallmarks of Eric Holder's community prosecution efforts as U.S. Attorney - and that continue to this day - was - as many of you already do - the assignment of cases based on geography. As you know, under this model, prosecutors are assigned to particular neighborhoods so they can develop an understanding of, for example, dynamics like gang rivalries and the interplay of crimes and criminals.

       This practice is a close cousin of place-based policing, which targets small geographic units for a concentration of resources. Research has shown that crimes tend to be committed in just a few areas, so it makes so much sense - especially when dollars are scarce - to target resources in those areas. This is one of those smart-on-crime approaches that the AG talks so much about, and it has important implications for successful prosecution.

       I know, in some ways, I'm undoubtedly preaching to the choir here. Community prosecutors were among the first to embrace the use of intelligence and crime mapping to inform their strategies. I urge you to continue being leaders in educating young lawyers coming into your offices and the community about these kinds of effective data-driven approaches. Encourage your staff to get to know the communities they serve - to get out in those communities - and to partner with those who live there to make those communities safer.

       We need to be aggressive in our outreach to communities, being ever-mindful of how important trust-building is to a prosecutor's success. Those who study legitimacy in the justice system - what you may have heard referred to as "procedural justice" - have found that case outcomes matter less than the perceived fairness of the process.

       In other words, even offenders are more willing to accept a negative outcome if they think their case was handled fairly. And this means that community members are more willing to cooperate with prosecutors and law enforcement if they believe they are dealt with respectfully. I think that has real implications for areas like witness cooperation.

       In fact, in instances of serious violence, community prosecution may give prosecutors an edge on breaking the barriers of silence that too often impede investigations in these difficult cases.

       Finally, if we really want to take community prosecution to scale, we need to start evaluating it. We're seeing an expanding body of evidence about what works in enforcement, particularly community-based policing. I'd like to see us develop a strong foundation of community prosecution research. So I encourage you to get in touch with your local universities and develop alliances with researchers. These practitioner-researcher partnerships are, in my view, one of the keys to future success across the criminal justice spectrum.

       Some of the responsibility for moving the community prosecution model forward clearly falls on us at the federal level. More research is needed in this area - and the research we do have needs to be passed along to you in a way that you can use. This is an area where my agency can play a strong role. After coming back to OJP shortly after President Obama's inauguration in 2009, I launched what we've called the Evidence Integration Initiative designed to do that. One of its major goals is to help better translate research into practice.

       But funding support is, of course, also a key goal for OJP. We know that successful community prosecution may require staffing up your offices. Budgets are tight, and I know that prosecutors' offices are feeling the pinch every bit as much as law enforcement agencies.

       A week-and-a-half ago, I was pleased to announce $10 million under the John R. Justice program to help prosecutors and public defenders pay off student loans. I know that student loan forgiveness has been a priority issue for prosecutors for years. I'm really delighted about this program, and I hope it will help attract and retain talent in the community prosecution field.

       The APA - and all of you - will be critical to advancing the community prosecution model during these particularly challenging times. I'm very grateful to APA for your leadership and for serving as BJA's technical assistance advisor, and I appreciate the work you're doing, not just in community prosecution, but in other areas, as well - pretrial justice, indigent defense, family violence, and a special interest of mine, animal abuse.

       Working together, we've made great strides. I hope we can continue our progress. In many ways, I see community prosecution as the future of the prosecution field.

       So thank you for your dedication and hard work, and thank you for your commitment to justice and the safety of your communities.

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