Build prisons, Barr urges Attny. general doesn't say how to pay the bill.

March 20, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

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 the summit at the Baltimore Convention Center. "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.

In the audience during Mr. Barr's address, Richard A. Lanham, who runs the state's overcrowded and under-funded prison system, shook his head and began writing notes to himself: "If no new taxes, where will money come from?"

The cost of building the next proposed prison in Cumberland is estimated at almost $200 million, with another $40 million to $50 million annually to run it. "While we build prisons," wrote Mr. Lanham, "how do we begin to fix the society which future inmates come from?"

The question is 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 -- an effort that led state Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson and Gov. William Donald Schaefer to convene 700 politicians, law enforcement of ficials 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 federal, state and local police agencies -- little hope was offered to the prison and parole systems that are barely coping with an ever-growing inmate population.

Mr. Robinson told the summit that the state would continue to look at alternative sentencing, such as home detention and other community-based correctional efforts.

At the summit, Governor Schaefer and law enforcement officials announced a strategy to combat street violence that relies heavily on new police programs and task forces.

Despite the call for new approaches, many of the programs announced yesterday are incremental in nature -- a fact that served to further highlight the message of the attorney general's keynote address.

"If you're going to lock more people up," said Mr. Lanham, the prisons chief, "then you better have a place to put them."

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