Acting on the theory that a small number of “frequent fliers” are responsible for most crime in Sedgwick County, District Attorney Marc Bennett said Friday he has been beefing up prosecution of seemingly low-level economic crimes in his first half-year in office.
Bennett said he has instructed his prosecutors to focus their investigations on persons instead of incidents, looking for patterns of small-ticket crimes that can be woven together into larger cases with stiffer penalties.
“We are not full of criminals,” Bennett told a meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club. “We have a small cadre of people, I don’t know if it’s 5, 10 whatever percent, who commit a large proportion of the crimes in this community, whether it’s gang, shooting or financial crimes.
“I told our guys, you identify the frequent fliers, the names you see over and over and over again.”
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Bennett, the former supervisor of the Trials Unit at the District Attorney’s Office, said that many times in the past, a case might come in on a minor crime, such as a bad check, and lawyers would simply prosecute that charge as a stand-alone crime.
“That’s how it’s always been,” he said. “What I said is from now on, no more. If you have a case on that guy, go back and look at, ‘What else has he done?’”
For example, he said, the bad-check writer might also be involved in drugs, or burglary, or car theft, or something else that could be charged as part of a “conglomerated, unified effort.”
Bennett cited the recent case of Jeff Vap, owner of Quality Construction and Remodeling, who was found guilty in June of charging homeowners for contracting work and then not completing the jobs. Taken alone, the individual cases didn’t amount to much, but after the first case was brought and publicized, several other homeowners came forward with allegations against the contractor, he said.
“We’ve got three convictions, five new cases, grand total of about $80,000-$90,000 in restitution, on one man,” Bennett said. “Think of how many different victims that accounts for, only because we said instead of just piecemealing these things out one little nickel-and-dime case at a time, (there was) a coordinated effort.”
Bennett also said that while crimes such as murder and rape draw big headlines, far more people are victimized by economic crimes such as burglary and consumer fraud.
He said he has reorganized the department to make economic crime its own unit because those cases often got less attention than they deserve when they were being handled by the same prosecuting teams who handle more high-profile crime.
Bennett said he also is planning to move consumer protection back downtown to the Sedgwick County Courthouse from its current location, at a satellite office near the I-135 and Kellogg freeway interchange.
The current location “is not terribly convenient for what I think are our most vulnerable citizens, that being seniors … who aren’t familiar with it,” he said. “They know where the courthouse is.”
Bennett said he has three simple rules for consumer protection: “Get people their money back … the elderly go to the front of the line … and work with and identify the good businesses” to resolve consumers’ problems without having to resort to litigation.