Addressing Maryland's first-ever summit on violent street crime, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr yesterday gave the state's political and law enforcement leadership his most basic advice: "Build more prison space . . . the choice is more prison space or more crime."
The gathering responded with polite applause. Mr. Barr had not explained where money for such prisons might be found.
Saying that only incarceration can guarantee that career offenders will not commit violent crimes, Mr. Barr cited the federal government's own prison construction efforts -- in which more than 30 new facilities are in construction or planning -- and challenged Maryland officials to adopt a similar program.
"We have to go back to basics," said Mr. Barr, the keynote speaker at yesterday's summit, staged at the Convention Center by state Public Safety Director Bishop L. Robinson. "The first responsibility of government is public safety, and the first dollar spent should be on public safety."
It was a message that fell hard on state political leaders and law enforcement officials, who spent much of the day talking about making do with existing resources in a time of dwindling financial resources.
Sitting in the audience during Mr. Barr's address, Richard A. Lanham, who runs the state's overcrowded and underfunded prison system, shook his head softly and began writing notes to himself on a sheet of paper: "If no new taxes, where will money come from?"
The cost of building the next proposed prison in Cumberland is now estimated at almost $200 million, with another $40 to $50 million required annually to run the facility. "While we build prisons," wrote Mr. Lanham, "how do we begin to fix the society which future inmates come from?"
The question is little less than the guns-or-butter conflict at the center of Maryland's effort to reduce bloated crime rates in Baltimore, Prince George's County and elsewhere throughout the state -- an effort that led Secretary Robinson and Gov. William Donald Schaefer to convene 700 politicians, law enforcement officials and community leaders for a day of speeches, pronouncements and discussion.
And while yesterday's summit featured a host of new proposals aimed at improving the "front end" of the war on crime -- notably the response of the federal, state and local police agencies to the problem of violent crime -- little hope was offered to the prison and parole systems that are now barely coping with their ever-growing inmate population.
Mr. Robinson told the summit that the state would continue to look at alternative sentencing, such as home detention programs and other community-based correctional efforts, in an effort to staunch the flow of bodies into Maryland's prisons. At the same time, Governor Schaefer told the gathering that political support for the state's prisons was essential.
"You can't just send him 400 more people and say, 'It's your problem now, Bishop Robinson,' " said the governor, gesturing toward his public safety secretary. "It's my problem, it's your problem. It's everyone's problem."
Not all Marylanders, however, apparently feel that way. While Mr. Barr is assured of a Congress willing to bankroll massive U.S. prison construction with deficit spending, Maryland officials acknowledge that they have little that resembles a consensus.
A University of Maryland survey unveiled at yesterday's summit included one particularly telling result: Respondents were asked whether citizens would be willing to pay an additional $100 in taxes to build more prisons.
Fifty-seven percent said no.
With neither a consensus nor money to repair the "back end" of Maryland's criminal justice system, Governor Schaefer and others instead contented themselves yesterday by announcing a strategy to combat street violence that relies heavily on new police programs and task forces.
Specifically, law enforcement officials pledged renewed cooperation between federal agencies and Maryland's police departments. Agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have already been pledged for task forces targeting violent repeat offenders in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.
Likewise, state police yesterday confirmed that they were undertaking a new strike force aimed at drug traffickers from New York who are flooding Maryland drug markets not only with narcotics but with teen-aged youths from the Bronx or Brooklyn, who are recruited to sell the drugs.
In addition, the U.S. Attorney's Office for Maryland pledged to continue efforts with local prosecutors in which violent offenders are often charged under federal firearms statutes and are subjected to more severe penalties than they are in state courts.