Politicians Talking Crime

February 06, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

In the global village, all crime is local. We know of the shooting on a Long Island Railroad train. We know of Polly Klass, kidnapped during a sleep-over at her home in California and then killed. And we read every day another installment in the unraveling plot to kill or maim an Olympic skater.

Hardly any of this seems abstract or remote to us.

We have our own stories: the ATM kidnappings, a child killed playing football in front of his house, a prison guard murdered outside his house, a teacher shot in her car, a real estate agent murdered and stuffed in a closet.

Violence enshrouds our lives.

In some quarters a debate may be heard about whether, given a decline in some criminal activity, we have a "crisis" or just a more visible "problem." Experts may quibble, but many of us would say "crisis" in a New York minute.

The distinction, if any, is inconsequential, particularly if you're a victim -- or a politician. No one says crime is not an issue.

"What is driving it is the random nature of violent crime," says Baltimore County Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Republican candidate for governor. "The movement of crime from urban areas into the suburbs is another factor. Until recently, if you were a suburban resident and stayed away from areas where you knew there was street crime, the odds were you'd wouldn't be a victim."

But the fearsome vulnerability to violence is more palpable everywhere now, including the city.

"Anybody can get shot," a 5-year-old Baltimore school child observed matter-of-factly last week, "but I never [thought] they would shoot my teacher." She was shot in the face as she tried to drive away from her school in Northwest Baltimore.

"I know some places don't have guns and shooting. I don't know where, though," said the 5-year-old.

He's probably wrong, of course. Guns and shooting are everywhere.

Assertions about how to fight back are almost as plentiful, and the debate over cost and effectiveness is about to begin anew. In fact, Marylanders should get ready for an onslaught of gubernatorial candidates in search of positions that show, simultaneously, real toughness and an understanding of the problem's complexity.

Criminologists virtually despair of solutions that might show the quick results voters demand. They seem to trust in a combination of aging or burnout in the active criminal. Rehabilitative services -- which the public finds too expensive or too nice -- are also a part of the long-term solution they say.

But look for the candidates to echo the call for variations on the old idea of putting bad guys under the jail and throwing away the key. Credible candidates will be tough and open to consideration of new approaches, including a new look at root causes.

6* When it was time for him to officially

declare his long-standing candidacy for governor, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg chose a street corner in West Baltimore. His uncle, Israel Steinberg, was murdered there 25 years ago.

"I stand on this corner, where violent crime affected my family, to say that we don't have to live with this anymore," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

(Look for candidates to talk about how crime has affected them personally. Several others have done this already.)

Mr. Steinberg joined a throng of candidates -- virtually all of those running for governor of Maryland -- who want to abolish parole for violent offenders. He also wants to revamp the juvenile justice system and he supports an ambitious package of gun control measures promoted by Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, including state police licenses for handgun owners.

Since he has been in a position to change things for eight years, though, Mr. Steinberg's commitment will be challenged. Others who have held elected positions may also expect to hear an opponent call their effectiveness into question.

Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Republican contender for governor, came out with rhetorical guns blazing on this one.

Through her spokesman, Gordon Hensley, she said last week that "the obvious question is: 'Where have they been all these years, and why at the eleventh hour in an election year they are stumbling over themselves to cover the inaction with tough sounding rhetoric?' "

Mr. Hensley said Mrs. Bentley has cast a long series of votes in favor of tougher sanctions. She plans to release a detailed plan to address criminal justice issues soon. The proposal will include a promise to make Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals, more conservative when vacancies occur. While judges frequently take heat from political critics, they have seldom been a campaign issue in races for governor. This year may well be a different.

Two other remedies have drawn considerable attention from the politicians: President Clinton wants something called "three strikes and you're out." (Senate Republican leader Robert Dole says "three strikes and you're in.")

Whatever. After three convictions, an offender would face life without parole.

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