Bias Crime/Community Relations

Bias Crime/Community Relations

Across the country, prosecutors are recognizing the importance of changing their relationship with the communities they serve. In this new role, the justice system emerges as a partner with the community, asking how the justice system can help support community efforts, rather than dictating solutions to neighborhood crime and quality of life problems. A Community Justice Unit seeks to build these strong links with individual communities by seeking partnerships and problem solving. Passaic County’s Community Justice Unit was formed in June of 2000, with partial funding by a Community Justice Grant from the Attorney General’s Office.

The Community Justice Unit has five components: Community Justice Initiatives, the Violent Offender Removal Program (VORP), Community Prosecution, Bias and Hate Crime, and Gang Prevention and Intervention. The unit’s role includes tracking criminal activities in select neighborhoods; monitoring cases that are important to the community and local law enforcement; attending community meetings; providing training to local law enforcement, educators and students; and monitoring violent offenders.

Community Justice Unit Initiatives
Our Community Justice Initiatives are designed to build stronger connections between citizens and the justice system. The top priority for the unit is to engage the community with program planning and partnership building. During our first year of operation, the unit met with individual residents, educators, city leaders, faith based leaders, and community groups in order to explain our role and function, and hear their concerns. Public forums were held to gain an understanding of the community and to develop a sense of connection with those who live and work there. As the year progressed, priorities and issues began to unfold. Drug dealing, violent crime, street gangs, and quality of life issues took the spot light with community groups, parents and educators. The gang issue developed into a countywide initiative. The unit’s Community Justice Grant assisted in funding these initiatives.

Violent Offender Removal Program (VORP)
The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Community Justice Unit has the responsibility of directing the Violent Offender Removal Program within the targeted area of the City of Paterson’s 4th Ward. This area is sometimes labeled the V.O.R.P. Zone. The 4th Ward is beset by a variety of problems and experiences substantial criminal activity. The Prosecutor has designated this area as a "Special Law Enforcement Zone," as outlined by the former Governor Whitman’s "Quality of Life Model". Efforts in this area are aided by a State grant awarded to the City of Paterson: "The Paterson Police Partnership Program." This grant adds additional community police officers, a safe haven school, and redevelopment money into this area. This special designation focuses government resources to assist citizens in retaking control of their communities. Criminal offenses occurring in this zone subject the perpetrators to enhanced penalties.

Community Oriented Prosecution
Community-oriented prosecution marks a significant departure from traditional views of prosecution. No longer confined to offices, the Prosecutor’s Office has deployed an assistant prosecutor and investigator in selected neighborhoods where they work closely with citizens, other government agencies, businesses and faith based organizations. This arrangement allows the assistant prosecutor to shift focus from the singular task of pursuing conviction in the individual case to the broader perspective of determining how to use their legal skills to prevent crime. The unit also supplies speakers and training personnel for community outreach events.

Bias and Hate Crimes
Hate crimes, or bias incidents, are acts of prejudice, hate or violence directed against individuals, groups or institutions because of race, color, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or handicap. These incidents may result in physical or emotional injury or property damage. Examples of hate crimes include cemetery desecration, cross burning, bias harassment, graffiti of a hateful nature, bias motivated assaults or destruction of houses of worship. A person who is convicted of a bias motivated crime is subject to extended terms of imprisonment.

New Jersey laws mandate that the Prosecutor’s Office be notified immediately of the occurrence of any bias or hate motivated crime of violence. To this end, the Bias Crimes Officer of the Community Justice Unit assists with the investigations of bias and hate crimes occurring within Passaic County. The unit works closely with local law enforcement to provide legal and investigative assistance. Furthermore, the unit offers educational training to both law enforcement officers and community and school groups.

The unit is an active member of the Passaic County Human Relations Commission; a group of approximately ten members of Passaic County’s organizations, institutions and citizenry whose goals are to help eliminate bias incidents; to promote understanding, goodwill and appreciation among people of different cultures and races; and to foster communication and problem solving to improve inter-group relations in Passaic County.

The Bias Crimes Officer is available to speak to civic and church organizations and groups about hate crimes.

Gang Prevention and Intervention
A New Jersey State Police Report on street gangs cited Passaic County as one of five counties where the problem of gangs is most severe. (June 2001). We estimate that there are over 75 different gangs and over 2000 gang members in the county. One-half of our homicides are gang-related.

In response to the concerns of citizens, the Community Justice Unit took three issues; gangs, violence in the schools and drugs, and began an educational and collaborative approach with the Passaic County community. Numerous gang awareness programs have been held for law enforcement personnel, educators, community members and clergy. To date, over 2000 people have attended these training sessions. In addition, we have instituted "Cops in School Program" for grades 4 thru 8 dealing with gang awareness, violence, gun safety, and safety issues.

The unit also monitors gang presence and activity throughout Passaic County, working with local police departments and the New Jersey State Police Street Gang Unit.