ANNAPOLIS – Nine percent is Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s favorite number. That is how much arrests for violent crimes have gone down in Maryland between 1996 and 1997 – she says because of administration crime prevention programs that encourage cooperation between police and the community.
Among them? The administration’s HotSpots Communities program, which targets high-crime areas for community policing.
But some experts say the crime statistics are too fresh to prove a link to initiatives from Townsend and Gov. Parris N. Glendening, both Democrats.
“Recent drops in crime could be [attributed to] demographic changes,” said Michael Buckley, director of the Crime Prevention Effectiveness Program at the University of Maryland.
Richard Bennett, running mate for GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey, said anyone can play the numbers game. But, he said, crime is still a real problem in Maryland, especially in Baltimore. He said a drop in arrest rates does not necessarily mean a decrease in crime.
Townsend, a former Maryland prosecutor, is Glendening’s right-hand woman when it comes to crime-fighting plans. Bennett, a U.S. attorney for Maryland for seven years, said he will fill the same role should Sauerbrey be elected.
Interviews with both camps reveal some clear differences in how they would approach crime fighting in the next four years.
Glendening wants to follow up a 1996 measure he signed limiting handgun purchases to one a month with a measure mandating safety locks on guns. Sauerbrey opposes both, because she says they do not target the illegal weapons usually used in crimes.
Glendening abolished parole for offenders serving a life sentence, but Sauerbrey wants to abolish parole for all violent criminals. She also believes a speedier, coordinated state court system can lower juvenile crime.
Glendening moves toward the Nov. 3 election with endorsements from two key law enforcement groups, The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police and the Coalition of Black Maryland State Troopers. No law enforcement groups have endorsed Sauerbrey.
Presidents of both police groups said they supported Glendening and Townsend because they hired 1,700 officers during their term, increased salaries, gave state workers the right to bargain collectively and instituted community policing.
Here is more on where the two candidates stand on key law enforcement issues: COMMUNITY POLICING
HotSpots, a state program launched in July 1997, parcels funds out to 36 communities with high-crime rates. Money is then funneled to neighborhood watch groups and after-school programs, where police and probation officers help out. The intent is to keep tabs on frequent offenders and make neighborhoods less conducive to crime.
“Before, we just responded to calls about an incident, but now we do more preventative measures like getting orange hats and cell phones for a neighborhood patrol,” visiting recreation centers and working with community groups to clean playgrounds, said Maryland State Police spokesman Pete Piringer.
Townsend proposes increasing the HotSpots budget from $3.5 million to $7 million annually to expand the program to about 100 neighborhoods.
But Bennett called the HotSpots program a “Band-Aid approach” because crime prevention funds are not spread evenly through the state, leaving some areas to suffer.
“We need more of a coordinated state effort so that, for example, if a juvenile is cited for drug possession in one county, if he is caught in another county … the police know it is his second offense,” Bennett said.
Bennett also wants to appoint a Maryland drug czar who would plan a long-term strategy to lower illegal drug sales and increase drug education programs in schools. GUN CONTROL
“Smart guns” is the new buzz word for the Glendening/ Townsend administration. In one version, a computer chip would only allow a gun to fire if it recognizes the owner’s thumb print. Stolen guns would be inoperable, limiting the number of weapons in the wrong hands. Glendening and Townsend are proposing that smart gun technology become mandatory within three years for all guns sold in Maryland.
Bennett said he and Sauerbrey do not support the proposal because such technology is too futuristic, will be too expensive and does not adequately address the problem of illegal guns.
Daniel Webster, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research, said Colt will have a smart gun available by next year, for about $200 more than the average gun.
Owner-specific guns would prevent child injuries and teen suicides with a parent’s gun, Webster said. The computer chip can recognize several fingerprints, so all adults in the house could use the gun for protection.
Police favor the proposal because 10-15 police in the nation are killed each year when criminals use officers’ guns against them, Piringer said.
Sauerbrey and Bennett head their crime prevention proposal with measures to lower juvenile crime. Violent juvenile crime arrests in 1996 were about 5 percent higher in Maryland than the national average, according to FBI and Maryland Uniform Crime Reports.
Maryland needs a state juvenile court that will be more coordinated and authoritative than the county circuit courts, Bennett said. He proposes a separate juvenile state court operated under the district court system.
To lessen the burden on district courts, he would have minor traffic cases heard by a panel of appointed lawyers. “It’s ridiculous that 75 percent of juveniles never see a judge, but anyone with a ticket for driving 70 mph will face a district judge,” he said.
Townsend said the proposal would create an unneeded layer of bureaucracy. She said circuit court systems already have unified standards for judging juveniles. PAROLE
Sauerbrey and Bennett want to abolish parole for all violent criminals. Violent criminals now serve about 60 percent of the time they are sentenced to, said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
The GOP candidates want to institute Truth-in-Sentencing, meaning that when a judge sentences someone to four years, that person will spend all four years in prison.
“The system fails when it releases one violent criminal to make room for another,” Bennett said.
Townsend said abolishing parole would require building at least 10 new prisons. Instead, she proposes closer supervision of parolees with community policing and frequent drug testing.
Sipes said abolishing parole would require about five new prisons in Maryland, costing $500 million total.
Bennett said that such an estimate does not consider how judges will change their sentencing as parole is gradually ended. “Right now, judges sentence people to 12 years in the hope that they’ll serve the four,” Bennett said. -30-