Prosecutors in Alexandria were staring at an uncomfortable statistic. Hispanic victims of crime failed to show up in court 33 percent of the time--about six times the rate of no-shows in the general population.
So in 1997, the commonwealth's attorney's office launched community forums, bringing Spanish-speaking judges, public defenders and police officers to meet the Hispanic public and to ease its anxieties. Today, the "failure to appear" rate for victims is down to 8 percent.
That success has sparked hopes at the commonwealth's attorney's office for another outreach program, one that has worked in the District and is gaining popularity across the country.
The program, called community prosecution, would detail one seasoned prosecutor in Alexandria to the Arlandria neighborhood, the city's main Latino neighborhood. Instead of being assigned to one type of crime--the traditional division of labor--this prosecutor would handle anything that occurred in Arlandria.
Admirers of the program see it as the logical extension of community policing. A prosecutor who works in a neighborhood, drops by local gathering spots and attends evening neighborhood meetings is more likely to get tips on crimes, stop them from happening and successfully prosecute them if they do happen, they say.
"With the prosecutors there, victims of crime can feel more comfortable going to the prosecutor," said Belinda Callahan, a community police officer who lives in Arlandria. "So we can be more sure there's a conviction."
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Erik R. Barnett made the push for the program, which will go forward if the city receives a grant next week from the U.S. attorney general's office. Barnett offered specifics of how the program might work.
Many Latinos in the community don't have bank accounts, he said, making them easy targets for larceny or burglary. If a prosecutor had the time to bring bank representatives to the community to help residents establish accounts, there would be fewer larcenies and robberies to prosecute. A typical robbery sentence is five years, he said, which costs the government about $100,000, or $20,000 annually, for each conviction.
"It costs less for the government to stop the crime than to punish it later on," he said. "It's the difference between being proactive and reactive."
Montgomery County's State's Attorney Douglas Gansler (D) launched a similar program last month, and thank-you letters are arriving daily from the community.
"It definitely is a nontraditional role of a prosecutor, but my view is that every prosecutor's office in the United States will look like this in 10 years," he said.
But Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. (D) promises his office won't adopt the new approach, which he said was "trendy" and made "no sense."
"Social workers have been doing that for years," Horan said. "They've now got the police on board with community policing, and the next step is to get the prosecutors on board. But there is no indication that it has succeeded prior to this. . . . If I started sending [prosecutors] out in the countryside, a lot of cases would go unprosecuted."
Alexandria is aiming its program at the Hispanic community because many Latin immigrants are fearful of government, Barnett said, and won't report crime.
"In the criminal's mind, that establishes this class of people you can victimize, and they won't report it, so you won't get in trouble," he said.
Applications have poured in for the competitive federal grants, said Nicholas Gess, associate deputy attorney general. Only $5 million is available nationwide, and the concept is so popular that President Clinton is asking Congress to allocate $200 million to the program next year.
"It's relatively new, but it's one of these things that's caught on like wildfire," Gess said. Gess works for Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who launched a similar program in the District in 1996 when he was U.S. attorney there.
If Alexandria wins its grant, $180,000 will be available over 18 months to pay for a full-time prosecutor and a full-time administrator, who would work together in the community. After those 18 months, Barnett said, his office would go begging for funding, probably to the city.
Arlington County has not embraced community prosecuting per se, but last year the county created a program with some similar components. County police officers are assigned to one of four districts, and a prosecutor from the commonwealth's attorney's office is detailed to work with both the police and the community in each of the districts.