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DA wants special prosecutor to help stem violence

Apr 14, 2013


By The Associated Press

CORVALLIS — The district attorney of Benton County is pitching an idea aimed at heading off violence like the Sandy Hook school shooting.

John Haroldson wants to create a specialized prosecutor position to focus on juvenile and mental health cases, an idea already being used in some big cities such as Portland, New York and Chicago to tackle particular types of crimes, The Corvallis Gazette-Times reported Sunday.

“Are we doing everything that we can?” Haroldson wondered, about preventing crime. “And if we're not, what more can we do?”

Under the proposal, the new prosecutor would focus on mental health cases, juvenile delinquency and juvenile dependency, which deals with issues of child abuse, neglect and parental fitness.

A multidisciplinary team of community, law enforcement, mental health and other representatives would meet regularly with the prosecutor and share information about security concerns, possible safety threats and individuals who showed the potential to commit acts of violence.

The group could consider a range of actions, including arranging for counseling or psychiatric treatment, requesting a civil commitment or pursuing a criminal prosecution if there was evidence a crime had already been committed.

“It would be a proactive intervention model,” Haroldson said. “The goal is not to allow information we have to go so underutilized that we do nothing even though there's an evolving risk.”

Haroldson pitched the idea this month at a Benton County Budget Committee meeting. His two-year funding request included an additional $272,000 for a specialized prosecutor and support staff. A public hearing on the county budget is set for Tuesday, with a final decision expected in mid-May.

His proposal drew a mixed reaction.

Anne Schuster, who chairs the Corvallis School Board, supports the idea of a specialized prosecutor.

“I would love to see mental health issues, especially youth mental health issues, dealt with proactively,” Schuster told the Corvallis Times.

Lisa Ludwig, a Portland criminal defense attorney, thinks creating a proactive prosecutor to look at mental health and juvenile cases raises serious questions about privacy and the right of law-abiding citizens to be left alone by police.

She wonders what personal files Haroldson's multidisciplinary team would be looking at, whether the team would have the power to subpoena the information it wanted, how long it might hold onto juvenile records and whether people identified as potential mass murderers might wind up in a database that would follow them around for the rest of their lives.

“I think this crime prevention stuff, it's fairly scary. It certainly raises these due process concerns,” she said.

Haroldson says he understands those concerns. But he said there are legal safeguards in place that would prevent the kinds of abuses Ludwig worries about.

“We're not talking about delving into information that isn't already accessible to us,” he said. “It's not about mining cases for prosecution.”

The idea of community prosecution — also known as proactive prosecution — grew out of the national trend toward community policing and has been around since the late 1980s, according to Brent Berkley, who heads the National Center for Community Prosecution, a program of the National District Attorneys Association.

He said community prosecution has been used extensively in large cities to take on everything from code enforcement to prostitution, gang crimes and gun violence.

Portland, under Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk, was an early adopter, using prosecutor-led teams to address drug problems in Old Town and other neighborhoods, the newspaper reported.

“If you can get somebody early, get them some treatment or get them involved in some of these programs, maybe you won't have to be prosecuting them later for something else,” Berkley said.

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Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com

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