Got a big hand Tuesday night when he...

PRESIDENT CLINTON

January 27, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

PRESIDENT CLINTON got a big hand Tuesday night when he said, "those who commit repeated crimes of violence should be told 'when you commit a third violent crime, you will be put away for good: three strikes and you're out.' "

The president is just the latest politician to join the posse on this issue. Gov. Mario Cuomo wants a three-strikes-and-you're-out law in New York. Gov. Zell Miller wants a two-strikes-and-you're-out law in Georgia. Gov. Pete Wilson wants a one-strike-and-you're-out law in California.

Maryland is a little ahead of the curve on this approach. It has long been a four-strikes-and-you're-out state. It is also a three-strikes-and-you're-in-for-25-years-no-parole state. I wouldn't be surprised to see both those old statutes made tougher this year. Getting tough on crime is No. 1 on every elected official's hit parade these days.

The president preceded his lock-em-up, throw-away-the-key statement with this: "We must recognize that most violent crimes are commited by a small percentage of criminals." That's for sure. The number of men with a previous record of two crimes of violence who were convicted of a federal crime of violence last year was probably only a couple of hundred at most. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 571 "Category VI" criminals were sentenced in 1992. That includes all violent three-time losers plus a number of other felons. But put behind bars even 100 dangerous men and you probably prevent several thousand killings, rapes, beatings and armed robberies a year.

The president cited Houston as an example of a city that had successfully gotten tough with crime. It has, as Eric Siegel reported in detail in The Sun Monday. Based on the FBI's "Crime VTC in the United States 1992," Houston has a much better record than Baltimore in having safe streets. It had 27.4 murders per 100,000 population, compared to Baltimore's 44.6! Other crimes of violence comparisons were similar.

But this is misleading. If we did one simple thing that Houston did long ago, our statistics would look as good. What did Houston do? It grew. It took in most of its suburbs.

Houston's population of 1.7 million sprawls over 556 square miles. Baltimore's population is less than half that compacted into less than 15 percent of the acreage. But if our suburbs were included. . . .

If Baltimore County and Baltimore City were one, we would have a Houston-like population of 1.5 million in a Houston-like sprawl of 678 square miles -- and our murder rate in 1992 would have been a Houston-like 25.2 per 100,000.

Were this city united with Baltimore County, there would still be just as much crime (probably, but not necessarily), so what good would it do except statistically?

Well, decisions on relocating, investing, going to school or hospital, visiting, shopping, conventioneering, etc., are sometimes made at least in part on a city's reputation as safe or scary, based on statistics.

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