Programs to help localities fight crime took beating along with federal items Democrats expected to seek revival

December 01, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A string of little-noticed elements in the doomed 1991 crime bill might have had a greater impact on local crime than the highly publicized measures that provoked last week's congressional deadlock.

The demise of the bill forestalled, for the time being, the introduction of a new national law-and-order agenda based in part on converting successful local anti-crime initiatives into federally financed programs.

But Republicans found the legislation unacceptable overall because they considered it too soft on defendants. Critics argued that it did not sufficiently restrict death-row appeals and was too restrictive on police use of improperly seized evidence in criminal trials. President Bush threatened to veto it.

"A lot of people think the items that got less attention were the most important," said a congressional staff attorney for Democratic members, who was involved in crafting the legislation.

The attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed out that only 5 percent of crime is handled by the federal government, the rest coming under the jurisdiction of state and municipal agencies.

"There is a feeling among many of our members," he said, "that these [local] resources were more important in the overall effort to curtail crime than the high-visibility but low-application factors such as the death penalty, exclusionary rule and others."

Another Democratic legislative attorney, also speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed out that the crime-fighting authorizations in the bill totaled "a very important" $3 billion and predicted that the Democrats would push the initiative again after Congress reconvenes next year.

"It's going to be very difficult for the Republicans to hold it up," he said.

"In a presidential election year they usually beat up on us [Democrats] for being soft on crime, and if they are holding up a potential $3 billion for law enforcement, that's pretty hard to do."

What follows is a closer look at some of the local initiatives -- casualties of politics -- that were in the legislation.

Shock therapy

* The 1991 crime bill would have provided $200 million in grants for states to develop programs emphasizing accountability and certainty of punishment for young offenders with the ultimate deterrent of boot camps and other shock-incarceration methods.

From Quincy, Mass., came the idea of progressive punishment, graded to make it clear to young offenders that the more trouble they get into the harsher the penalty society will exact. From Georgia came the shock therapy of a military-style boot-camp for the young.

Under the Quincy model, the young first-offender, aged 7 to 16, enters a "diversion program," so called because it is designed to divert the offender away from the criminal court system. To avoid trial, the offender must pay $60 to enroll in the program, which involves counseling and community service.

The counseling includes a blunt outline of the certainty of more severe punishment, ending in incarceration, if further crimes are committed.

"When they are diverted away from the criminal justice system, they basically straighten out. It's the real hard-core kid who goes all the way to the DYS [Department of Youth Services detention center]," said Sgt. Thomas Malvesti, who has worked with youngsters in Quincy for 21 years. He added, "It seems that the recidivism is basically stopped."

In Georgia's boot camps, male first-offenders, aged 17 to 30, are subjected to harsh discipline, put to work on public projects and given counseling during a daily 4.30 a.m.-to-10 p.m. military-style regimen. The 90-day incarceration costs only one-fourth as much as a year in prison but has the same effect in terms of deterring repeat offenses, studies show, making it extremely cost-effective. The system, first introduced in Georgia in 1983, has been copied by 20 states. Maryland has a boot-camp program.

"For a certain type of impressionable young man who accepts the therapy and accepts the rigorous discipline, training and regimentation, it changes the course of his life. They don't want to go back to boot camp, they will tell you," said Andy Bowen, director of public affairs with the Georgia Department of Corrections.

He added: "We have had young men tell us they appreciated the experience, and we have had parents call us and ask us if their children could go to boot camp."

On foot patrol

* The 1991 crime bill would have created a $175 million formula grant program to get more officers back on the beat and shift the emphasis from reaction to prevention of crime.

When police Officer Karma Jones, 33, first went on foot patrol through the Seminole Hills Apartments Project in Tulsa, Okla. two years ago, it was "kind of rough."

"Sometimes they would try to surround you, get in there screaming and hollering," she recalled. "It used to be you had a lot of people hanging out, all over, in the shadows, wherever, trying to sell their dope."

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