Opinion

One NC county already has reduced violent crime

CMPD robbery Detective Matthew Freeman, who works out of the Steele Creek Division, says he frequently sees subjects he’s arrested more than once still out on the street. Det. Freeman says he’d like to see an expansion in number of courtrooms and the size of the prosecutor’s office handling criminal cases. We rode along with him on Wednesday day, Aug. 29, 2018 as he went to check a security camera videotape at Street Concepts and Car Audio after a robbery.
CMPD robbery Detective Matthew Freeman, who works out of the Steele Creek Division, says he frequently sees subjects he’s arrested more than once still out on the street. Det. Freeman says he’d like to see an expansion in number of courtrooms and the size of the prosecutor’s office handling criminal cases. We rode along with him on Wednesday day, Aug. 29, 2018 as he went to check a security camera videotape at Street Concepts and Car Audio after a robbery. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

In the era of limited funding for the criminal justice system, we can still reduce gun violence and violent crime by focusing on that small group of repeat violent offenders who create most of the havoc. As a New Jersey Police Chief once said, “We will use a spear in our efforts and not a net” to take them off the streets.

Forsyth County used a three-part strategy to successfully reduce its violent crime rate:

1) In 1996 the Legislature changed the law to allow low Level H & Level I felony guilty pleas to be heard expeditiously in District Court rather than many months later in Superior Court. District Court is where traffic and misdemeanor cases are heard. This change gave the Superior Court more trial time because there were no longer a multitude of H & I felony pleas to be heard. This created more time to try habitual offenders and gun criminals. H & I felons compose 64% of the North Carolina prison population. Forsyth Superior Court then used the extra time to send more felons to prison than Mecklenburg. The additional court capacity meant less plea bargaining as the jury trial rate soared to 8% while the state average was below 2%.

2) The strategy also focused on “habitual felons” — those who had been convicted of three felonies on three separate occasions. Upon the conviction of a fourth felony, even a minor felony could be sentenced as a serious class C felony and the punishment raised significantly. Unfortunately, the NC legislature reduced the punishment somewhat for class C felons and made it more difficult for habitual felons to qualify as Class C felons under the 2011 Justice Reinvestment Act.

3) Most importantly, Forsyth focused on criminals with guns. In 1999 Forsyth created its Zero Armed Perpetrators program. ZAP was an acronym chosen so that the criminal will know he was going to be “zapped” with additional jail time if he continued with his gun career.

ZAP then merged with the federal gun program, Project Safe Neighborhoods. Together they became synergistic. Each week local, state and federal officials met to review every gun offenders’ pending charges. The partners included officials from Forsyth’s DA’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s office, ATF, Winston-Salem Police Department, Forsyth’s Sheriff’s Office, NC Probation and Parole, Forsyth’s Domestic Violence program, and other law enforcement agencies including the Highway Patrol.

The ZAP Director in the DA’s office would comb through the week’s arrest reports looking at every misdemeanor and felony charge for the mention of any bullet, projectile, shell casing, along with if a gun was used or threatened to be used even if a gun was not displayed. After checking the AFIS database for fingerprints and the NIBIN database for spent bullet and cartridge case matches, a case synopsis that included the criminal’s record would be written. ZAP then decided whether the perpetrator would be tried in state or federal court.

Once a criminal was designated a ZAP offender, the prosecutor handling the case had to follow ZAP’s recommendations. No armed robbery was ever reduced and no one who shot anybody was offered a lower charge. In fact, in most cases a higher sentence or additional charges were directed. The most violent of these criminals were referred for federal prosecution with their enhanced punishments. Written warnings were given in court to ZAP, domestic violence, carrying concealed weapon and potential habitual felon offenders that extra punishments awaited them upon their next conviction.

As a result of the above, Winston-Salem, which had the 17th most violent crime rate in the U.S. in 1994, saw it drop to No. 302 by 2009.

Mecklenburg has 21 District Court judges. Surely one will agree to hear the H & I felonies. If not, the legislature should make it mandatory. Doing nothing is not an option. Too many lives are at stake.

Thomas J. Keith is a former Forsyth County district attorney
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