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Can Prosecutors Help Break the Cycle of Recidivism?

The Crime Report

By Crime Report Staff

When an analysis found that Miami-Dade County spent nearly $14 million in combined jail and health care costs in a five-year period on just 97 individuals, county authorities realized something was deeply skewed within their justice system.

In response, local police developed a new approach to what criminologists call the “frequent utilizers”—the small group of people who move between jails, emergency rooms, state hospitals, and psychiatric facilities in a never-ending cycle of despair.

Training priorities were changed, so that law enforcement sent troubled individuals to community services for counseling instead of repeatedly arresting them. As a result, the county’s jail population was cut in half from 7,000 in 2008 to about 4,700 in 2014, enabling authorities to close one jail facility, and saving some $12 million.

Such innovative strategies have become increasingly used across the U.S., as police, sheriff’s departments and courts collaborate with local healthcare providers, family counseling services, drug treatment clinics, and housing authorities to target a population that is often considered un-reformable.

But one player has been notably missing: the local prosecutor.

As the most powerful law enforcement officer in any jurisdiction, a prosecutor makes the ultimate decisions about whether and how to apply punishment—and too often, he or she bases that decision on traditional data such as an individual’s previous record.

But what if prosecutors were deeply involved from the beginning of the process, and used their authority to ensure that offenders’ personal and social circumstances—homelessness, drug addiction, poverty—were taken into account when deciding how they should be handled in the justice system, or even whether they should be dealt with outside the system altogether?

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