Donald Fry: Helping city’s new prosecutor implement a vision

By Donald C. Fry

Public safety is an important element of any city or region’s business climate and quality of life.

So when Gregg Bernstein won the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s race last fall and vowed to reorganize and revitalize the office, the Greater Baltimore Committee, comprised of the region’s business and civic leaders, agreed to research best practices in prosecutors’ offices in Maryland and beyond.

The GBC delivered the report derived from that research to Bernstein this week, as he took the reins of the city state’s attorney’s office.

The report details 20 “best practices” recommendations for Bernstein to consider as he reorganizes the operations of the city prosecutor’s office of more than 200 attorneys scattered on several floors of two downtown courthouses, a juvenile justice center and three District Courts.

The report includes recommendations to consider for restructuring management, strengthening recruiting and training practices, improving case management and services to victims and witnesses, and establishing a program with the city’s police department to address credibility issues.

The report also includes a recommendation to consider implementing a “community prosecution model” that, among other things, tracks cases within geographic zones and coordinates management of related prosecutions in those zones. It also recommends developing a strategy to reduce the number of jury trials sought by defendants and conducting an information technology audit.

The report’s research was performed in November and December by an ad hoc GBC committee chaired by Charles N. Curlett, Jr., a partner at Saul Ewing LLP, that was comprised of a cross section of senior lawyers with prosecutorial experience from the public and private sectors. The committee reviewed the organization, operating strategies and procedures in prosecutors’ offices in four Maryland counties, two New York counties, Philadelphia and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C.

“The primary goal of the committee’s work was to identify, in a very specific way, the best ideas of leading prosecutors’ offices that can be applied in Baltimore to enhance the prosecution function,” said Curlett. “With this report, we hope to set the State’s Attorney’s Office on a path to apply those best practices in the organization, management, and administration of that office.”

Here are a few topics and highlights from the report’s recommended best practices:

• Community-based and “vertical” prosecution approach. One of two key organizational recommendations in the report is to adopt a “community prosecution model” for the office’s trial divisions that better tracks and coordinates cases within various geographic areas. This would enable a “concentrated focus on problematic areas within the city,” according to the report, which suggests that the city consider establishing a Community Prosecution Unit similar to those in Montgomery County and in Manhattan. A second key recommendation is to move to a more “vertical” prosecution model, where one attorney would handle a case from intake through disposition.

• Management and communication. The report recommends finding a way to better consolidate the physical location of the state’s attorneys’ offices. The effectiveness of any office depends largely “on the individuals’ ability to work together in a physical space that allows for effective communication.” It also recommends a professional public affairs communications staff that maintains public accountability and directly interacts with community constituencies.

• Recruiting and training. Hire a full-time director of training and implement “a formal, rigorous, and highly-structured” training program. Strengthen the office’s recruiting and training practices to attract top students from area law schools and to enable young attorneys from area law firms to work at the state’s attorney’s office for periods of time. Also, establish training programs for police officers to ensure high standards of case preparation.

• Police credibility. Establish a “new and cooperative process” with the Baltimore Police Department to address claims of credibility concerning police officers. Other suggestions include launching a conviction integrity program “to ensure overall integrity in all aspects of the work of the State’s Attorney’s Office,” including managing allegations concerning police credibility and post-conviction claims of innocence.

• Case management. Ensure that the office’s case management procedures include having an early case assessment bureau staffed by senior prosecutors, establishing protocols for the intake and charging of cases that require follow-up investigation by charging officers, and evaluating all citizen criminal complaints through court commissioners before issuing charging papers.

• Victims and witnesses. Ensure that the office has a “robust” Victim and Witness Unit that works cooperatively with the city’s police department “to strengthen the protocols and programs to protect witnesses and to provide services to victims.”

• Jury trials. Develop a strategy to eliminate defendants’ incentives to ask for a jury trial solely to secure a more favorable plea offer. Such a strategy could include seeking legislation to provide for lesser charges for certain misdemeanors, reducing penalties to 90 days or less. This would give prosecutors more plea bargaining flexibility to dispose of cases at the District Court level.

The report also stresses the need to strengthen and effectively deploy information technology resources to set and meet high performance targets.

These are just a few summaries of a wealth of best practices gleaned from the eight prosecutors’ offices in three states and the District of Columbia that were reviewed by the GBC committee.

It’s important to note that this study is about the future, not the past. It is intended to help the city’s new prosecutor clarify what elements define an effective state’s attorney’s office in today’s – and tomorrow’s – law enforcement environment.

Some elements of these recommendations may have already been in place. But the purpose of the GBC study is to give Gregg Bernstein a broad, comprehensive resource – a tool to better enable him to implement his vision for a state’s attorney’s office that plays a central role in a fresh, coordinated and highly credible criminal justice system in the city.

The citizens of Baltimore City deserve nothing less.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

A culture of ‘giving back’ lives in Maryland’s business community

Budget challenges will test government’s capacity for strategic planning

Facing the disconnect over the concept of ‘business climate’

Tax commission delivers refreshing change of pace

‘Reform’ commission to mull tax increase for Maryland corporations

No tsunami in Maryland, but voters deliver ripple of transition

Why isn’t transportation infrastructure crisis on lawmakers’ radar?

Market expert tells a pre-Halloween scary story

Entrepreneurs provide inspiration in a recession

Military is driving Maryland’s anticipated biggest economic spurt in 60 years

MedImmune CEO frames bright future for bioscience

Making transportation a top-tier priority

Primary voters in a mood for transition

Reading Maryland’s fiscal tea leaves

Getting beyond sound bites and bumper stickers

Biotech tax credit more popular than ever, but the ‘rock-concert’ lines are gone

Bad timing for upcoming business tax report

For economic indicators, the ‘whipsaw’ effect continues

Do census data foretell a Baltimore city population rebound?

Remember the value of business after the election

New report ranks Baltimore among stronger regions to weather the recession

New living wage proposal: wrong idea, wrong time for Baltimore

Northeast needs more attention from federal rail planners

New national report has familiar ring for Maryland bioscience advocates

New report underscores Maryland’s work force development challenges

State’s health initiative: a ‘win-win’ for employers and their workforces

As Baltimore hikes taxes, are state’s counties next?

After the ‘fiber from heaven’ scramble, what’s next?

BRAC growth no longer a future event – it’s happening now

Economic development is a contact sport

Despite the recession, bioscience growth still percolates in Baltimore

State stumbles in enacting new education collective bargaining process

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It’s not good to be clueless in cyberspace

Amid fiscal shuffle, Maryland lawmakers pass measures to spur business growth

Thankfully, Baltimore leads with substance over style in luring Google

Leave damaging transportation provisions out of the budget

Amended budget continues recession-induced fund shifts and stimulus rescue

General Assembly setting stage for combined reporting push in 2011

Wrong timing for proposal to change Baltimore City school board

Baltimore City isn’t alone in facing pension funding challenges

A government investment program that delivers

Proposed transportation fund raid — a bad habit continues

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