Friday, October 16, 2009

On City and County Consolidation

With the difficult budget choices facing both the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, leaders (and candidates for offices) in both governments have begun discussion the consolidation of services. One of the most talked-about targets for consolidation is the Prosecution Division of the City* Law Department, which currently prosecutes all misdemeanor offenses committed within city limits. While I've heard some talk about this, I've not seen any real discussion of what such a consolidation would mean in practice. I thought I'd address it here.

First, a primer on the way misdemeanors are prosecuted in Hamilton County: All misdemeanor offenses are handled in the Hamilton County Municipal Court, which generally occupies the first and second floor of the county courthouse. There are fourteen municipal court judges. The City staffs each courtroom with one prosecutor. The County (responsible for prosecuting most misdemeanors committed outside city limits) assigns one prosecutor to cover two courtrooms, but also has a couple of "floaters" and a supervisor. (These can help out if, for instance, a prosecutor has a room with a particularly long docket or a prosecutor has a trial or is out sick.) The County prosecutors spend their mornings rotating between their two rooms. (While they're in one room, the City prosecutor keeps the court in the other room busy. The arrangement makes sense, as the city's docket is generally--but not always--longer than the county's in any given courtroom.)

When people talk about "consolidating" the two offices, they generally are proposing the near-elimination of the City Prosecutor's Office. Let's be clear at the outset about "consolidation," then: it's political-speak for layoffs. It may be a good idea, but it means that people will lose their jobs. Note that I wrote "near-elimination," though. That's because Hamilton County wouldn't prosecute everything currently handled by the City. Anything charged under Cincinnati municipal code (rather than Ohio Revised Code) would still be handled by a City prosecutor. That means the marijuana and income tax laws. It also means the City's "housing docket," which is the result of the criminalization of Cincinnati's administrative building code. The same is true for other cities in the county. If a crime is committed in Norwood, for instance, is charged under Norwood's municipal code, and transferred from Norwood Mayor's Court to HamCo Municipal Court, then an attorney from the Norwood Law Department comes to the county courthouse to handle the prosecution. Cincinnati would have to make similar arrangements.

What would consolidation mean for the County? I suspect the County would have to add five to seven prosecutors to its municipal division. The judges, I imagine, would be unhappy if their courtrooms were at a standstill for long periods of time while their assigned prosecutor was in another room; the amount of cases alone would probably dictate at least one prosecutor per room. I'll admit that I don't know how fines and costs are distributed, and whether the City collects money from cases it prosecutes under Ohio Revised Code. If so, the City would lose that money and the County would gain it. Whether the loss exceeds the salaries paid to city prosecutors or the gain would exceed the extra salaries the County would have to pay is a good question.

So those are the nuts and bolts. But there are broader policy considerations to think about, as well. The American justice system vests prosecutors with enormous discretion about whom to charge; what to charge; and what type of plea bargain to offer. With respect to the vast majority of cases heard in municipal court, there is little or no difference in the "deal" a defendant would get from a city prosecutor versus what he'd get from the county. But there are cases--and certain charges--where there seems to be a policy difference. Talk about consolidation raises an interesting philosophical question: With whom would we prefer prosecutorial discretion to be vested? Should it be in an office at the head of which is an elected official, who is thus directly accountable to the citizenry? Or should it be an office further removed from the political process? Such decisions are well beyond my pay grade, but they ought to be raised by those presently in charge (or those who presently argue for consolidation). Cincinnatians should ask themselves whether there's value in having local (municipal-level) control of prosecutions. Or maybe they'd prefer to have these prosecutions handled by an elected prosecutor who can be voted out of office if his or his assistants' decisions don't sit well with the populace. Answering those questions is again, beyond me. But they're important questions to discuss before we make major alterations of our government in order to respond to a short-term budget crisis.

Finally, I should note that I'm told by life-long Cincinnatians that consolidation of the prosecutors' offices has come up several times over the last couple decades, and the idea has always fizzled out in the past.

* Yes, there is more than one city in Hamilton County. But for brevity's sake, I'll use "City" to refer to Cincinnati, unless otherwise specified.

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