Data Must Precede Dollars HOWARD COUNTY

November 09, 1993

A minor hullabaloo over renovation of the Howard County Detention Center is a good example of how poor record-keeping and crossed wires can nearly subvert a worthy project. Just as corrections officials were making the case for adding $510,000 to $7 million worth of improvements to the jail, county police released crime statistics that appear to contradict assertions about the need for an additional maximum-security wing.

Police data, in fact, show an overall 5.2 percent decrease in crime in the county for the first nine months of this year. Rape and murder declined 50 percent and 40 percent, respectively, although assaults did rise a modest 1.3 percent. The police department, unfortunately, has no data tracking the crime rate over several successive years. But what it does have fails to jibe with jail officials' contentions about rising crime.

Likewise, jail officials are short on specifics that would suggest a real increase in the number of violent criminals.

What we are left with is anecdotal information -- no doubt made more believable by the heightened atmosphere of fear over crime nationwide. In addition, certain high-profile cases in the county, including the Pam Basu carjacking and murder, as well as the murder of a home tutor by a county teen-ager, lend further support to the idea of bigger and better jails.

The County Council's vote to proceed with the project was probably the right one, based on broader demographic trends. An additional $510,000 seems a minor investment given the strong likelihood the facility -- including the maximum-security wing -- will be put to good use. Still, not having the data to back up the proposal is troubling. While no one is suggesting that numbers be cooked to guarantee an outcome, good record-keeping is a must if elected officials are to justify expenditures.

As it was, officials narrowly escaped having to answer for the $510,000 request. County Councilman C. Vernon Gray had previously questioned the need for more maximum-security space, noting that "we haven't had a problem with people breaking out." Mr. Gray, however, was out of town when the vote to approve funding was taken last week.

Future projects need not be subjected to such cliff-hanger endings, so long as county officials begin to consistently collect important data now.

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