No easy crime solutions

March 23, 1992

Those who expected easy solutions from the Governor's Summit on Violent Crime left the Baltimore Convention Center disappointed. There weren't any, although there were attempts to offer panaceas. U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, for example, gave this basic advice: "Build more prison space. . the choice is more prison space or more crime."

In a way, Mr. Barr is right.

If society removed the most violent criminals from the streets and locked them in prisons for lengthy terms, law-abiding citizens might be able to take a deep breath of relief. But more is at stake here than building prisons. The whole judicial system at local, state and federal levels needs to be overhauled. Probation and parole practices must be changed. The time lag between prosecution and trials must be cut and plea bargains ended that insult common sense and erode public faith in the rule of law.

And who would pay for all this? "Not I," animal after an animal recited in an old children's story, when asked to work. But when it was time to reap the benefits, everyone cried, "I."

It is clear Mr. Barr's administration is not going to provide the money to pay for state prison construction or stepped-up law enforcement.

A poll released at the summit suggests that Maryland taxpayers are becoming increasingly reluctant to foot the bill, too. The reason is not difficult to fathom. Taxpayers see daily evidence of a criminal justice system that does not work properly. Yet they are asked to fund more and more expensive new facilities. The construction cost of the next proposed prison in Cumberland is estimated at almost $200 million, with another $50 million required annually to run it.

Most of the 824 people interviewed for the statewide survey expressed "tremendous concern" about rising violent crime in Maryland. At the same time, except for residents of Baltimore City, they discounted the seriousness of crime in their neighborhoods.

When they were asked whether they would pay $100 more in taxes to build more prisons, 57 percent said "no." Compared to a similar question in a 1989 Sun poll, support for more taxes to combat crime has decreased. "There are indications that the public is accepting crime as a way of life" that is "just something they have to accept and put up with," said the scholar who conducted the survey.

Politicians in Washington and Annapolis listen to angry people. But Americans apparently are still not angry enough to demand the kinds of fundamental changes that would make the judicial system work again.

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