To honor the unsung heroes working in every corner of this country as volunteers, the National Association of Counties (NACo) launched the Acts of Caring awards in 2000 as part of the Counties Serve America program, a long-term project to raise public awareness and understanding about county government. The awards recognize that by joining forces with county government, volunteers have a powerful impact on their communities that is both immediate and long lasting. The Orange County District Attorney’s Community Prosecution Program was one of 25 outstanding volunteer programs selected from across the nation to receive the 2002 Acts of Caring award. Congratulations Community Prosecution Program!
The Community Prosecution Program is a community-based, volunteer-driven initiative in the Orange County District Attorney's Office designed to:
1) Create linkages with immigrant communities in order to provide information and education about services available to victims and witnesses of crime; and
2) Develop solutions to crime and safety issues using cultural forces and resources that already exist within these immigrant communities.
The program was established in 1998, under the leadership of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, to address the needs of Orange County's rapidly growing immigrant populations. Because of language and cultural barriers, many of these new residents had difficulty understanding the criminal justice system. They were therefore reluctant and often fearful to seek help as either victims or witnesses of crime and to cooperate with law enforcement and prosecution efforts.
The Community Prosecution Program is currently focused on the Hispanic and Vietnamese communities, the county's two largest immigrant groups. Bilingual Hispanic and Vietnamese outreach workers mobilize the efforts of over 100 volunteers who help in a variety of ways to reach out to these communities. Both the Hispanic and Vietnamese components have established volunteer advisory commissions comprised of public officials, law enforcement, attorneys, religious leaders and community activists. The 26-member Hispanic Advisory Commission and 49-member Vietnamese Advisory Commission provide invaluable assistance and direction in identifying key barriers to resident participation in and cooperation with the various arms of the criminal justice system and developing culturally responsive solutions to address those problems. Both Commissions have successfully launched bilingual media campaigns and created bilingual resource booklets to help their communities understand how to access the criminal justice system. In addition, a volunteer outreach corps, which includes college interns, employees of the District Attorney's Office and others, help with the program's numerous outreach events, such as staffing outreach booths at cultural festivals, conducting criminal justice workshops and town hall meetings, and speaking to children at Career Days. Not only does this group do much of the 'grunt work' involved with a project (e.g., publicity, staffing the booths, organizing events, etc.), but group members also have tremendous outreach capabilities through their connections to the community. Because they are immersed in their respective cultures, these volunteers help to ensure that the project is culturally relevant, credible to the community, and accepted by community leaders and elders.
Through the work of the Advisory Commissions and community outreach volunteers, the Community Prosecution Program benefits Orange County's Hispanic and Vietnamese residents by providing them with effective criminal justice information on a wide range of topics including child abuse, consumer fraud, domestic violence, elder abuse, extortion, gang violence, sexual assault, etc. Through this information, they learn how to access services if they are victims or witnesses of crime.
The Community Prosecution Program provides Orange County's Spanish and Vietnamese-speaking people with a higher level of understanding of the workings of the criminal justice system in general, and more specifically, the role of the Office of the District Attorney within the system. A more positive view of the Office and its services by immigrants benefits all stakeholders. The resulting increased familiarity with the justice system helps to erode any pre-existing distrust and foster a relationship of cooperation between the Office and the community. As the program continues to expand, more tangible benefits are expected including increased willingness to assist in the prosecution of crimes, particularly in willingness to testify. In addition, although difficult to quantify, the amount of trauma experienced by victims will be reduced as these populations become more aware of victim resources and assistance.
The Community Prosecution Program has created a successful collaborative effort between the District Attorney's Office, community service programs, local police departments and community leaders to provide the county's immigrant population with effective criminal justice information. The program participates in at least one community event a month in which the Office sets up a public service booth staffed by representatives of the different collaborating agencies. For example, at the Mariachi Festival in September and the TET Festival in January, the program successfully contacted thousands of Hispanic and Vietnamese people to bring the Office's message of awareness to the community. As a result, the program provided hundreds of referrals for Orange County residents to multiple community assistance programs.
The program's legacy for the future is improved public safety through better-informed residents. The Office sees increased communication with the residents of Orange County as a very cost-effective way of increasing their knowledge of the role of the Office of the District Attorney in the criminal justice system. This increased knowledge will assist prosecutors in more efficiently and effectively prosecuting cases. Ultimately, all residents of Orange County will benefit as more community groups assist the Office in prosecuting crimes.
Congratulations to the District Attorney’s Community Prosecution Program for the distinguished honor of being selected for the 2002 Acts of Caring Awards.