Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Prosecute This!

Tully takes another look at the Marion County Prosecutor's Race:

Carl Brizzi arrived first, walking into the room with a mug of coffee and a look that said, "This should be interesting."

Melina Kennedy arrived a few minutes later, reaching out to shake hands with the man she's trying to get fired as Marion County prosecutor.

Brizzi, a Republican, and Kennedy, his Democratic challenger, had found their way on a recent morning to the South Bend Chocolate Co. Downtown. In a room just steps from the coffee counter, the two were there to talk jail crowding.

Unlike most debates, the rules to this one were simple: Two candidates in a room. No aides -- just the candidates and me.

Kennedy started, questioning whether Brizzi has successfully moved inmates to state prisons.
"How effective have we been at prosecutions?" she asked. "Are the repeat offenders out on the street committing more crimes?"

Brizzi returned serve, pointing to his plan to house 250 jail inmates in a New Castle state prison this summer, hoping to stem the problem of early releases from county lockups.

"Additional jail beds," he said, "are what you can do right now to send a message to the bad guys. Who cares where it is?"

The opening statements set the tone. Over 45 minutes, Kennedy blamed Brizzi, at least partly, for jail crowding, while Brizzi pointed to an alarming increase in crime and the need for more jail space.

The two agreed on several issues -- more money is needed to speed up trials, for instance. Despite that agreement and the generally friendly tone, Kennedy jabbed repeatedly at Brizzi.

"It's very important that we all work together on this issue, that no one individual circumvent (the process)," Kennedy said, echoing Democratic criticism that Brizzi is trying to score quick political points with his New Castle idea.

"When you've gone to as many funerals as I have, and you've talked to as many victims as I have, at some point you just say enough is enough," Brizzi said, defending his plan.
The two delved into the weeds at times. Kennedy questioned the use of continuances, which delay cases. Brizzi reminded her that prosecutors must wait for DNA and ballistics tests, and, often, witnesses.

Kennedy painted Brizzi as a slow-moving prosecutor whose office has been hit by high turnover. She talked of the "environment" in his office and said "a rash of" turnovers not only slows cases but is a result of "management."

Brizzi argued that turnover slowed dramatically after wages for starter-level deputy prosecutors were increased. He also made sure to stress that Kennedy has no prosecutorial experience.

The two could have continued trading gentle shots all morning. But I wrapped things up by asking whether Marion County would ever see an end to its jail crowding problem.

"If we can figure out a way to put a retractable roof on a dome, we can figure out a way to solve jail crowding," Brizzi said.

"We can't do anything but continue to work on this problem," Kennedy added.
On that question, both candidates were right.


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