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Preventing crime as useful as prosecuting

As we seek to stem the tide of rising crime and violence in our community, we should not lose sight of the fact that cities across America have overcome similar challenges by applying proven strategies that focus not just on crime punishment, but also on crime prevention. After all, my goal as the district attorney is not to maximize the number of successful homicide prosecutions my office concludes in a year, but rather to reduce the number of homicides that occur in my community.

To that end, I believe we must focus on what works and ensure our laws, resources and strategies are harmonized for maximum impact.

First, there is broad public consensus that violent criminals and the mentally unstable should not have ready access to firearms. As a federal prosecutor, I had broad statutory authority to prosecute individuals who simply shouldn’t have a gun. Unfortunately, state law does not give prosecutors the same power, limiting our ability to prosecute a much smaller subset of prohibited persons and failing altogether to include prohibitions against juveniles convicted of serious violent offenses but sentenced as minors. Indeed, if Nehemiah Griego is sentenced as a juvenile, not only would he be eligible to legally purchase or possess a firearm upon his release, he could also petition the court to return the very weapon he used to kill his family. This is wrong, and I urge our elected representatives to act now and align our criminal code with commonly held community values.

Second, because my experience in federal court has highlighted substantial differences in how different systems of justice deal with violent offenders, I am using some of our newly appropriated resources to expand our partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office by creating a specialized unit of cross-designated prosecutors who may appear in federal court. This unit will focus on armed career criminals and other violent felons covering a range of offenses from weapons charges and carjacking to kidnapping and armed robbery. Not only will this strategy ensure a substantially higher rate of detention for serious violent offenders, it also means that crimes involving a gun will be subject to substantially greater penalties.

While necessary, however, I also believe that these traditional enforcement strategies will not — by themselves — alter the trajectory of violent crime in a sustainable way. To meet that objective, I believe we must implement a comprehensive strategy developed by the National Network for Safe Communities known as “Ceasefire.” Built around the concept of focused deterrence, this strategy uses a coordinated approach of targeted law enforcement, community outreach and social service support to prevent gun violence before it occurs. Implemented as a classic “carrot and stick” model, the strategy focuses law enforcement and community resources on identifiable groups responsible for a disproportionate share of gun violence within the community.

Once identified, groups that have a high historical association with past gun crime are proactively engaged by law enforcement and told in no uncertain terms that future offenses will be met with swift and certain consequences. Importantly, however, they are also informed by trusted community members that help and support is available provided that no future violence occurs.

Though it requires law enforcement and community members to be proactive and think differently about how to address violent crime, the track-record of well-organized Ceasefire programs is impressive. Oakland’s homicide rate dropped 20 percent in a single year, Pittsburgh’s rate is at a 12-year low, and Detroit’s is the lowest it’s been in 50 years. All three cities credit Ceasefire with that remarkable success.

While nothing is ensured when taking on a challenge like the one we now face, and implementing an effective Ceasefire program in Bernalillo County will require a sustained commitment to leveraging the resources of our entire community, I believe we’re up to the task and I remain committed not only to punishing crime, but also preventing it whenever possible.

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