Race against crime: As public safety becomes a business issue, much is riding on battle for prosecutor

November 28, 2005

The dust has settled on Mayor Bart Peterson's failed police merger. Meanwhile, local crime is surging, up 11 percent from 2002 to 2004. The next bellwether on how to turn the tide will be the 2006 Marion County prosecutor's race. The contest, pitting Melina Maniatis Kennedy against incumbent Carl Brizzi, already is drawing the attention of community and business leaders, who say the stakes are huge: Rampant crime can cripple a local economy. "Where there's crime-scene tape, there are not construction barriers being put up," said former Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman, a Republican. "Where criminals are stealing copper pipes and appliances out of new homes, you're not going to have as many new homes built." "I think that is being threatened right now," he added. "The trends are really scary."

Both candidates for prosecutor pitch strict law-and-order platforms. But they have decidedly different views on how to curb crime.

Brizzi, a Republican, is wrapping up his first term as prosecutor after serving two separate stints as a deputy under Newman. A subscriber to New York City's famous "broken windows" theory of crime fighting, Brizzi wants to beef up prosecution of misdemeanors and property crimes.

More aggressive efforts to thwart minor offenses, he argues, will stop criminals before they "graduate" to violent major felonies. Brizzi's bottom line: Marion County can't be as tough as it should on the "bad guys" because of a lack of jail space.

"If you don't hold the low-level offenders responsible for their actions, they're going to be emboldened," Brizzi said.

His opponent, Kennedy, a Democrat, has long been one of Mayor Bart Peterson's closest advisers. A former deputy to the mayor, she's best known serving as the city's director of economic development.

She also counseled the mayor on curfew sweeps to curb youth crime and helped spearhead his attempts to decrease jail overcrowding. In her view, more jail beds may be part of the solution. But they aren't a panacea.

"Focus on management, efficiency and collaboration has got to be top priority for the office of prosecutor," she said.

Kennedy promises a more cooperative approach with all the stakeholders in public safety. Given that Democrats hold the majority of seats in local government, she likely can deliver on that count. As the most prominent Marion County Republican, Brizzi is often at odds with the mayor and his associates.

Fixing the problems

It's easy to find a consensus among Republicans and Democrats that the local public safety system desperately needs repair. But they seldom agree on what to tackle first-or how to approach any particular problem.

The bipartisan Marion County Criminal Justice Planning Council spent the better part of last year studying the public safety system. It recommended focusing on speeding up the courts. Efforts to improve court capacity, paper processing, prosecutor pay and to address other troubles would provide the greatest bang for the buck, it argued.

Brizzi, a member of that nine-person council, took pains to cooperate. He said efforts to improve efficiency can help. But he believes they won't add up to a complete solution. For that, he said, Marion County must find a way to fund more jail capacity.

Jail overcrowding leads to the early release of thousands of prisoners a year. That's the source of the county's higher crime rates, he argues.

"It's absolutely getting worse," he said. "The bad guys are getting out of jail due to space restrictions."

Property crimes on rise

Year-end statistics aren't complete. But from 2002 to 2004, reported crimes across the county increased by 5,487 offenses annually. Property crimes made up the bulk of the growth.

According to the FBI's uniform crime reports for the Indianapolis Police Department and Marion County Sheriff's Department, property crimes increased 15 percent across the county from 2002 to 2004.

Property crimes in IPD's inner-city district were up 14 percent, from 21,019 incidents to 23,935 incidents. In the sheriff's suburban territory, the problem was even worse, with property crimes increasing 16 percent, from 19,966 incidents to 23,063 incidents.

Over the same time, violent crimes such as murder or rape decreased 7 percent across the county. In the IPD's territory, violent crimes dropped 9 percent, from 6,307 incidents in 2002 to 5,752 in 2004. In the sheriff's district, violent crimes were up 3 percent, from 1,285 incidents to 1,324.

Peterson's administration tends to focus on the upside-the gains against violent crime. But Kennedy acknowledges the business community's frustration with property crime is mounting.

"As I've learned in economic development, in order to have a climate where businesses can grow, businesses and families have to feel safe," she said.

Contrasting the candidates

Brizzi's campaign is already attempting to shape the race around the question of experience. As the incumbent, he holds a natural advantage on this front that's augmented by his earlier work in criminal law. Brizzi points to his office's record of successful prosecution in more than 70 percent of major felony jury trials.

"At a time like this, you need an experienced prosecutor at the helm. Carl has certainly become that in every respect," said former prosecutor Newman. "The job of prosecutor fundamentally comes down to going toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball with murderers, rapists and drug dealers-being a leader in respect to some of the grittiest events in our city. It requires testing in a crucible [Kennedy] hasn't been through."

But Democrats say Kennedy is no shrinking violet. And they argue there's more than one path to the county prosecutor's desk. Neither Republican Steve Goldsmith nor Democrat Jeff Modisett came up through the office. Both were widely viewed as successful at the job.

Mayor Peterson pointed out Kennedy's criminal law experience as a clerk for Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. Peterson said her experience as a problem-solver in the debate over public safety, combined with her tenacious personality, make her well-suited for the job.

"I've seen her negotiate. I've seen her in difficult situations, going up against intimidating people. She prevails. She's an extraordinary battler," Peterson said. "And she understands the importance, with her work in community development, of attacking the causes of crime. She is just one tough person. I've never known anyone tougher or more effective."

The candidates aren't required to file campaign finance reports until January. But both Democratic and Republican leaders expect an expensive and closely contested race.

Whichever candidate prevails will have a large say about the solution to Marion County's public safety woes. For taxpayers, the race is a referendum on what the solution should be.

"What Carl doesn't want anybody to forget is that we have judges every day letting violent people out of jail. And they're going off and committing murders and other heinous crimes," said Marion County Republican Chairman Mike Murphy. "It's easy to focus on what you might call the softer side of things. But you need to make sure the violent criminals are staying in jail. And right now, they're not."

Local Democratic activist Michael O'Connor shot back.

"The criminal justice system is just that, a system with various people and components. What you need is somebody who's a problem solver who knows how to put a consensus solution on the table," he said. "I think that stands in a bit of stark contrast with what we're experiencing right now."
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