DAs making a push for new prosecutor programs

ablythe@newsobserver.comJanuary 27, 2013 

Benjamin David, president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, has been traveling across the state promoting what he and other prosecutors call a “Blueprint for a Safer North Carolina.”

The brochure, printed in December, promotes a strategy that sends district attorneys beyond courthouse walls into the communities that elect them in an attempt to create a criminal justice system that is “transparent, effective and accountable.”

“We can’t solve our crime problems at the courthouse or even the school house,” said David, who also is the elected district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties. “You have to solve it at the child’s house.”

Among proposals in the blueprint are creating partnerships with school officials, the business community, nonprofit organizations and religious leaders. It is much like the blueprints for community-policing programs launched in the previous decade.

“We thought it was a good idea because it looks at not just what’s good for DAs, but at all resources, in an all encompassing way,” said Colon Willloughby, the Wake County district attorney.

The plan, described as “community-based prosecution,” also calls for more training on such topics as ethics and transparency.

Since Mike Nifong was disbarred and ousted from elected office for his handling of the Duke lacrosse case, the number of ethics complaints against North Carolina prosecutors has risen steeply. According to data from the district attorney’s conference, there were only five opened files on grievances against prosecutors the year before Nifong was prosecuted.

In 2006, there were 17 files. In 2007 there almost 80 grievances filed against prosecutors. That number stayed about the same or rose a little higher during the next three years.

Because of increased complaints and several high-profile cases of wrongful convictions, David said he has been working with university law schools to focus on accuracy, error and decision-making in the criminal justice process.

“Justice starts with us,” David said. “We’re the servants of the law.”

The district attorneys also propose programs through which prosecutors can work with law enforcement officers to advise them of what they expect and what they will need for court cases.

The Conference of District Attorneys is rolling out its blueprint with an eye toward the 2013 legislative session that is set to begin Wednesday.

Though the prosecutors have not attached a dollar figure to their plan, David said the district attorneys hope to persuade the 2013 legislature that a larger percentage of the budget should go to the judiciary.

“One thing we’re saying is the third branch of government needs more than three percent,” David said.

David, a Democrat who has a twin brother in politics who is a Republican, said he does not know what to expect from the 2013 legislature.

The Republicans, at the national level, David said, are often described as “fiscal hawks.” But they also have a reputation as being more prone to funding “law-and-order” programs.

“I guess I’m trying to take politics out of this,” David said. “We want to frame the debate in a different way..”

The justice system works best, David said, if fairness, transparency and accountability are the focus, not party politics.

The district attorneys conference announced a plan earlier this year to start a new financial crimes initiative that uses a small portion of the $338 million from the National Mortgage Settlement that came to North Carolina last year.

That money will be used to pay for a White Collar Crime Resources Prosecutor and four other prosecutors spread out across the state to focus on mortgage fraud, embezzlement and cases where property was obtained by false pretenses.

“Many of these things we’re talking about are not about money,” David said. “They’re about working with other stakeholders.”

If the blueprint is successful, David said, district attorneys across the state might very well experience the loneliness of a Maytag repairmen inside the courthouse.

“That’s the idea,” David said. “I would love to be obsolete.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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