Buying or selling drugs in this North Carolina city is now a two-point offense. If a suspect is later arrested for a violent crime, he gets five more points. When he reaches 50 points, he's eligible to be on the list of criminals police here would most like to see behind bars.
Charlotte's newest crime-fighting strategy, something of a lesson in the mathematics of crime, is intended to help police zero in on the career criminal. Called Target 100, the program is an effort to identify the city's 100 most violent criminals - and to direct resources toward getting them off the streets and winning maximum jail time for them.
The program, unveiled last week, highlights how criminal justice systems here and elsewhere are coping with stretched-thin resources. Police say they don't have enough officers to patrol adequately, prosecutors are overtaxed or inexperienced, probation officers often have more offenders than they can watch, and undeserving prisoners are routinely released early to ease jail overcrowding.
As a result, focusing law-enforcement efforts on violent career criminals - from the street through the courts and to probation hearings - ensures the best use of city resources, local officials say. "If you're continually involved in the most violent crimes, we're going to go after you more deliberately than ever before," says Dennis Nowicki, chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County police force.
Precincts across the country have employed similar approaches over the past decade. Many departments have singled out neighborhoods, public housing projects, or communities where they concentrate patrols. Task forces on drugs have channeled manpower and money into high-risk drug areas. Even in the judicial system, specialized courts have been created to speed up drug or gun cases to ensure that punishment is swift and severe.
"As resources have been reduced and demand has increased, police departments have sought to become more efficient," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a research organization in Washington. "Efficiency is now more the focus than it has been in years."
Statistics show that concentrating on career criminals should significantly reduce crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that 6 to 7 percent of criminals account for 50 percent of all crime and 70 percent of all violent crime.
Police departments in Inglewood, Calif.; Washington; and Phoenix, Ariz., have all either had or still have programs like the one being implemented in Charlotte. The programs typically involve intensive surveillance of targeted criminals, beefed-up warrant service to bring in more suspects wanted on felonies, and more pre-trial time spent compiling evidence against a criminal to increase the conviction rate.
Studies show such efforts increase the number of offenders sentenced to prison, rather than being paroled or plea bargaining. They also show jail sentences are longer where programs are in place. But results are mixed on whether they push up the number of arrests and convictions.
The study of Washington's Repeat Offenders Program shows it was successful on all counts but was disbanded because it was too time-consuming for the police force. By contrast, the Inglewood program has been in place since 1988, winning community support and awards from national police organizations.
"It's common sense to focus on the most serious offenders," says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington. The question to ask, he says, is how do police determine who are the most serious offenders.
In most precincts, police intensify their efforts on the most atrocious, high-profile crimes rather than on those that do the most long-term harm to society, such as buying and reselling stolen property, which allows burglars to stay in business, Mr. Sterling says.
In Charlotte's scoring system, suspects get five points for a violent felony arrest, four points for a nonviolent felony arrest, three for a gun or serious assault arrest, and two for a drug arrest. Once the points are tabulated, a review panel will look at other factors.
Criminologist Alfred Blumstein at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh says the repeat-offender program has to be careful not to violate the civil liberties of individuals being targeted. "The concern arises over the degree to which there is an invasion of privacy of innocent people or people who've already paid their debt to society," he says.
"In a perfect world ... the entire criminal justice agency would be adequately funded to deal with the crime problem," says Chief Nowicki. "In my 33 years in the business, that has never happened."