At last week's community meeting in the Long Branch area of Silver Spring, Montgomery County prosecutor Maria Carrillo opened with an invitation: "We want to know what you think the crimes are in your neighborhood," Carrillo told the 11 neighborhood activists gathered around a table.
One woman complained that groups of teenagers were smoking marijuana, cursing and urinating near her dog-walking route. Another said they needed more help getting rid of known drug houses. Another said she has seen a "gang" that gathers on Flower Avenue growing larger.
Carrillo, an assistant state's attorney, jotted notes and handed out a list of 12 prosecutors on the "Silver Spring community prosecution team," including their direct phone numbers. Next time anyone sees a problem, she said, call the police. Or try the local prosecutor.
It was the kind of scene that is beginning to play out in Montgomery more and more often. It's part of a new approach called "community prosecution" that the Montgomery County state's attorney's office started last month.
The idea goes like this: Prosecutors are assigned to specific neighborhoods to meet and work with the police officers and residents who are most familiar with the area's crime. That way, before the prosecutor decides which cases to prosecute and how aggressively, he or she will know what kinds of crimes are affecting that neighborhood most and which people are seen as the chronic troublemakers.
Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D), who was elected last year, staked his political campaign on the idea. As of July 6, Gansler has divided his office's 50 lawyers into five teams aligned with the county's police districts: Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, Wheaton and Germantown. Traditionally, prosecutors were organized around types of crimes, such as homicides, sexual assaults, drugs and white-collar crimes.
In addition to prosecuting cases in court, Montgomery prosecutors are now expected to meet regularly with residents, business leaders, police officers and schools in their assigned neighborhoods.
If neighbors are complaining about a dark street where drug dealers are congregating, the prosecutor might ask the county to fix the street lamps, Gansler said. If tenants in a rental home are attracting a stream of cars all night to their drug-selling business, the prosecutor might work with neighbors to get them evicted.
"In some sense, it's an untraditional role for prosecutors to be playing, to be out there in front of the judicial system, problem-solving instead of case-processing," Gansler said.
It is playing out in ways large and small throughout the county. In Rockville, Assistant State's Attorney Deborah Armstrong and six other Rockville team prosecutors recently attended National Night Out block parties in the city to meet with residents and ride with local patrol officers.
Prosecutors are beginning to attend police roll calls to answer officers' legal questions, such as how to write a search warrant that will hold up in court and to hear officers' complaints about cases that were plea-bargained.
In downtown Bethesda recently, Assistant State's Attorney Tom Eldridge said, he worked with police and local businesses to remove a pay phone near the movie theaters where groups of young people seemed to be conducting drug deals. The loiterers, he said, have moved on.
"It not just, 'Here's my case, how do I prove it?' " Eldridge said. "It's now, 'How do I prevent future robberies in this area? Is it improving street lighting or removing a bench? Or is it increasing trust between the public and police so people call the police?'
"Those are much more long-term solutions to problems than just going into court and winning my case."
After one month, community prosecution is hardly a proven crime-fighting technique in Montgomery. Gansler said he might never know for certain whether it's working--crime rates drop for many reasons--but he said, "It makes sense."
The approach is gaining momentum nationwide. In the District, U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis announced last week that she is expanding community prosecution citywide by the end of this year. A 1996 pilot program in Northeast Washington is seen as at least partly responsible for the area's drop from the second- to fifth-most violent neighborhood in the city, District law enforcement officials said.
"It's something unlike anything that's ever existed here before," said Jim Johnson, co-chairman of the Long Branch Neighborhood Initiative, an umbrella organization of civic and tenant groups in Silver Spring. "We like it. There are specific people assigned to our community. We can get to know them and tell them what our priorities are."
In the 16th Street corridor of Silver Spring, some police officers and residents say they have noticed a difference in the types of crimes being prosecuted.
Victoria Price, chairman of the residents' security committee in the Rosemary Village cooperative, said the Silver Spring prosecutors have begun asking judges to lock up people who, though evicted for committing crimes, keep returning to their neighborhood to cause trouble.
"Montgomery County didn't take [trespassing] seriously until we got involved with the state's attorney's office," Price said. "Now, they've started getting judges to lock up trespassers. That helps, especially if it's a person people are afraid of."