Bringing back an L.A. program that worked
It’s always satisfying to see an elected leader fulfill a campaign pledge, and it’s all the better when a promise kept restores a popular and effective program. City Atty. Mike Feuer announced last week that he’s begun hiring to double the number of neighborhood prosecutors from eight to 16. He hopes to enlarge the staff even more in the coming year.
Created in 2002, the neighborhood prosecutor program assigns deputy city attorneys to work in police divisions, alongside officers and residents, on quality-of-life problems such as illegal dumping, noisy party houses, drug activity, prostitution and stray dogs. The prosecutors became popular among neighborhood councils and homeowners groups, as well as City Council offices, because they were accessible problem-solvers who could navigate the city bureaucracy, mediate disputes and employ the resources and powers of the court system.
But the program was slashed by then-City Atty. Carmen Trutanich during the recession. Trutanich had backed the neighborhood prosecutors when he first ran for office, but the program wasn’t among his top priorities. It didn’t help that he was at war with city leaders over his budget, and he was forced to make significant staff cuts. He chose to lose the community problem-solvers in favor of more traditional prosecutors.
Feuer has a more amiable relationship with the City Council and mayor, and shortly after he took office — surprise — they found $580,000 to help hire more neighborhood prosecutors.
Politics aside, this is the right move. The program is popular for a reason: It works. Neighborhood prosecutors attend Police Department roll calls and know the local crime issues. They are regulars at community meetings and work with residents on what matters most to them. They’re empowered to prosecute misdemeanors but also know how to use code enforcement or other city resources as alternative ways to address a problem.
There are some kinds of issues that especially lend themselves to this kind of program. One community, for instance, had a particular house that was a center of drug sales and gang activity. The police were called repeatedly, but as soon as they left, the troubles returned. Rather than pursue a slew of misdemeanor charges against the occupants, the neighborhood prosecutor tracked down the homeowner, an elderly man who was not in a position to control his tenants. The attorney worked on a conservatorship for the owner and got the troublesome renters evicted.
This approach has a practical side as well. In Los Angeles, a misdemeanor conviction rarely results in a meaningful jail term. As a result, law enforcement is having to rethink how it deals with smaller, quality-of-life crimes that can have big implications for communities. Neighborhood prosecutors can help; the city attorney’s office is wise to revive the program.
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