Modern-Day District Attorneys Do More Than You Think
Public safety and community engagement critical parts of 21st Century prosecutor’s job.
Many people believe a district attorney’s role is reactionary and our only action is to prosecute offenders after a crime has taken place. That is an important duty, but in my view, it is only part of the job.
The primary mission of a DA is to keep the community safe and that means being proactively engaged in ways which educate the public and help prevent crime.
My office, like many of my colleagues around the state, has forged a strong presence in the community with an unprecedented commitment to outreach, prevention, and education efforts. In fact, our collaboration with the community is so important, a few years ago we established Lancaster County’s first ever Community Outreach Coordinator position to focus on reaching out to the people and organizations with missions of preventing crime and making our schools safer.
Communities are safer when residents are aware of crime trends and scams, programs/initiatives in their neighborhoods, and how to protect themselves. To that end, we also created a public relations specialist position to publicize safety and crime-related information via social and traditional media, modern platforms, as well as CRIMEWATCH, a two-way networking channel for law-enforcement and residents.
My office also heads the Lancaster County Crime Prevention Task Force, a collaboration of law enforcement, community organizations, and county agencies, which hosts an annual Crime Prevention Summit on crime trends and how residents can protect themselves.
As a result, every day my office is engaged in ways most people might not think about when they think about prosecutors. Community engagement, public education and crime prevention have become important parts in the daily job of the modern day prosecutor. My colleagues and I around the state believe that criminals must be held accountable for their crimes, but also that keeping our constituents safe requires much more than keeping the wheels of the criminal justice system churning. That balanced and reasoned approach to the role of district attorney has led to many opportunities and initiatives that are making the system work better and making a difference in individual lives.
As Lancaster County’s district attorney, I have embraced this approach with specific, smart initiatives that exemplify how prosecutors are actively involved in their communities and work to prevent crime in the first place.
The solution to the addiction epidemic is not simply enforcement. We give presentations and partner with workgroups, task forces, and community initiatives to decrease overdoses, push for long-term treatment, and encourage recovery.
In addition, a few years ago we began distributing lockboxes for prescription drugs – which often serve as the origin for an addiction – as an educational tool and practical device.
To date, our office has distributed over 6,000 boxes. Any resident, program, agency or office can arrange to pick one up – at no cost to the taxpayer; the boxes are funded from drug forfeiture monies.
For many years, our office has offered age-appropriate, free presentations in schools on any crime-related topic the school desires, to include: internet safety, sexual abuse, and drug abuse.
Additionally, my outreach coordinator serves as liaison for our School Resource Officers in our public school districts. The SROs are vital because of their police powers and as mentors and confidants for students in distress.
We obtained a grant to fund a training for SROs on mass-injury situations and distributed first aid kits with emergency-response items. Along those lines, we have for many years offered free security inspections to schools by our SERT Team Commander James Zahm.
Additionally, we have revamped our Youth Aid Panels, which are citizen-run programs that give non-violent, first-time youthful offenders a second chance and enables rehabilitation with custom-made contracts. We recently had our largest-ever graduating class and are hopeful this translates to more young offenders changing their path.
My office has also for years been a partner with CASE (Campaign Against Sexual Exploitation), a national awareness initiative and resource base for parents, kids and communities to encourage preventive actions.
Fight Crime Invest in Kids/Nurse Family Partnership
I have been a longtime member of Fight Crime Invest in Kids, a national organization devoted to putting more resources into education (particularly pre-K) to save the costs of crime incurred years later. I have pushed this agenda in Harrisburg year after year.
I have also been a strong advocate for Nurse Family Partnerships, which arranges for home visits for low income first-time mothers. The purpose being to lower chances of abuse and neglect.
The digital world presents endless opportunities for kids but also makes them susceptible to online dangers. Parents must keep up with new apps and risks. Snapchat, Instagram and the like also present potential for bullying, which is no longer limited to classrooms and hallways.
To combat these dangers, a prosecutor focused on online crimes give presentations to schools on how kids can safely enjoy the digital landscape. We also teach parents what available apps, gaming platforms and devices can be harmful to their children.
Elder Abuse/Financial Exploitation
I created an Elder Abuse Task Force years ago to prioritize and prosecute those who abuse our seniors – but a large part of that mission is rooted in prevention.
Specifically, a retired detective was hired as an advocate to work solely with senior victim cases. He speaks regularly at retirement communities on the signs of exploitation or theft and on how to designate a responsible power of attorney. He also does tremendous work to intercede in potential exploitation situations so we can to try to preserve the victims’ finances.
The Lancaster County District Attorneys office handles over 7,000 adult criminal dockets every year. However, the most gratifying outcomes are the ones we never see or count because a crime was prevented as a result of outreach efforts. With prevention and outreach, we prosecutors are not just waiting for a crime and reacting. Instead, my office is doing everything we can every day to proactively invest in our schools and communities – to keep everyone safe.