Police were dispatched the evening of Feb. 11, 2017, to the 5100 block of East 24th Street, where the community center Hope City engages and feeds the homeless, including drug addicts.

Video surveillance showed a man punching another man at least three times before the suspect drove away. The victim knew his attacker. He identified him for police.

A few months later, Kansas City police arrested the suspect in his residence. He was charged with assault.

Now, this story takes a different turn thanks to a federal grant called Innovative Prosecution Strategies from the U.S. Department of Justice.

As part of that grant, a Jackson County prosecutor is dedicated to reviewing cases in Kansas City Police Department’s East Patrol. The prosecutor was searching for felony cases that might benefit from a new approach – using a community-led Neighborhood Accountability Board (NAB) who would help find a resolution outside the walls of the Jackson County Courthouse. This process uses restorative justice principles to address harm and hold individuals accountable for offenses.  If the victim agrees, the prosecutor’s office would dismiss the case and hold open the option of re-filing if the defendant does not complete his or her program with the NAB.   

This case looked like it might be a good candidate for NAB because the victim supported trying the restorative justice approach. He wanted his attacker to address his substance abuse problems. And the suspect was also sincerely grateful for the opportunity to right his wrong in a more substantive way.

The suspect told police that before the Feb. 11, 2017, assault he was drinking at a bar not far from Hope City. He was upset about family turmoil. He was so drunk that he didn’t remember hitting anyone. But if he hurt anyone, he told police he was very sorry. He wanted to apologize to the victim.

In March 2018, a group of four community leaders, who had been trained by the Center for Conflict Resolution in restorative justice, heard the case. The suspect faced the board and board members and the suspect agreed to a plan for his future improvement. Anger management. An apology to the victim. And an assessment for substance abuse. A mediation with the suspect and his family members also was set up. The suspect has complied with the agreement to date.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice selected the Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (“JCPAO”) as one of a handful of recipients of a SMART Prosecution Grant, now called Innovative Prosecution Strategies. These monies give JCPAO the resources to research and develop innovative approaches to gun violence in our city, including the restorative justice process.  Prosecutors work with KCPD and academic partners to devise, implement and monitor these new strategies.

The Smart Prosecution project has two organizing principles. First, the concept of geographic prosecution according to which designated attorneys handle only cases from designated areas, and second, engaging the community in substantive and meaningful ways.

JCPAO worked with KCPD to select five target areas, each approximately one-half square mile, of violent crime in Kansas City’s East Zone.  Two JCPAO prosecutors are assigned to the East Zone and prosecute all violent crime, with the exception of sex crimes and domestic violence, arising in the target areas. The prosecutors use data to understand crime patterns in each hotspot, as well as engage with community members to gain knowledge of the make-up of the community and the particular issues that contribute to violent crime.  This type of community involvement enables prosecutors to bring stronger and smarter cases. Community knowledge and crime statistics help law enforcement target those individuals at the center of criminal activity and to see the interconnectedness of cases and individuals, as opposed to traditional methods of looking at defendants and cases on a one-by-one basis.

In addition to enhanced prosecution techniques, JCPAO has implemented a number of initiatives to address crime and engage the community.

Abandoned Housing Initiative Abandoned houses and properties contribute to criminal activity. Recent studies have shown a link between ameliorating urban blight and lower gun violence rates. Prosecutors have partnered with Legal Aid to clear titles and rehabilitate abandoned homes in our target areas.

Restorative Justice Diversion The Center for Conflict Resolution has trained Neighborhood Accountability Boards to hear and resolve a limited number of cases using restorative justice practices.  This approach allows the community to have a voice in repairing the harm caused by certain offenses.

Victim Advocacy Prosecutors have increased the resources available to victims, as well as the number of victims we are able to contact.  We strive to talk to victims much earlier in the criminal justice process, regardless of whether we are able to file charges related to the offense. 

Community Engagement/Expungement The prosecutor’s office seeks to engage the community and build bridges with key community stakeholders. To this end, the prosecutor’s office has hosted community events in the target areas and also supports local groups who work to address violence in their neighborhoods. Additionally, the prosecutor’s office is funding an Expungement Clinic at UMKC School of Law to assist individuals who have old convictions eligible to be stricken from their records.  This project is part of the larger effort in building bridges to high-crime areas and revealing ways that the law and law enforcement can work for them.

Our grant ends in September 2019 and we will work with our research partners to publish a report on our findings.  Our efforts have already improved outcomes in our office by strengthening relationships with the community and the KCPD, and gaining significant insight into high-crime neighborhoods.