As the Maryland political campaign heats up, crime and drugs remain the foremost issues on voters' minds, a poll released yesterday found.
Thirty-eight percent of those interviewed ranked crime and drugs as the single most important issue facing the state, while 19 percent chose the economy and jobs.
Health care, which is dominating the domestic policy debate in Washington, finished a distant fifth, with only 9 percent ranking it as most important as a state issue.
Although crime was the top issue in the poll, two-thirds of respondents said they still felt safe walking down their streets at night. More than 90 percent said they felt safe inside their homes at night.
Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, which conducted the poll, said he thought the results showed that public fear of crime may be a bit exaggerated.
"Even though crime is an issue . . . in most parts of the state people still feel very secure in their homes and relatively secure in their neighborhoods," Mr. Coker said. "Perception and reality seem to be in two different spots right now."
Lawrence Greenfeld, acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, said that, while the overall crime rate has fallen nationally since the early 1980s, people have been strongly affected by large rises in crime among smaller groups of people, particularly teen-agers and African-Americans.
"For some sub-groups of our population, things have never been worse," said Mr. Greenfeld. "A lot of what is currently driving our fear of crime is the fact that we see that the kids are so victimized by it today."
The Mason-Dixon poll was conducted July 15-17 for The Sun and other news organizations and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The poll questioned 839 Marylanders who said they regularly vote in elections.
While crime topped this month's poll, it is apparently less prominent on voters' minds now than it was last winter when Mason-Dixon asked the same question and found 49 percent ranking it No. 1.
How safe voters said this month they felt walking in their neighborhoods depended on where they lived, poll results showed. Predictably, suburban and rural residents felt more comfortable than did those in urban areas where crime rates are higher.
For instance, more than 70 percent in Montgomery County and on the Eastern Shore said they felt safe, while only 48 percent in Baltimore City and 58 percent in Prince George's County said the same. In Baltimore County, 68 percent said they felt safe in their neighborhoods, while 72 percent in Maryland's central suburbs said they felt secure.
The poll also focused on several crime-related political issues, including gun control and sentencing laws.
Despite national polls that continually show strong support for .. measures such as Maryland's recent assault-pistol ban, the Mason-Dixon poll found that 73 percent thought gun control laws would not effectively prevent criminals from obtaining firearms.
Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, criticized the question as unfairly worded. It should have asked if gun control would make it less likely that criminals will get handguns, he said.
" 'Effectively prevent' is a very high standard," said Mr. DeMarco. "In a free society, it's hard to 'effectively prevent' anything."
Mr. Coker disagreed, saying Mr. DeMarco was "splitting hairs."
While people generally favor gun control, Mr. Coker said, they do not believe it alone will solve the crime problem. "If candidates are going to make gun control the central plank of their crime platforms, it may blow up in their face."
Seventy-five percent of the people polled said they would favor the passage of a "three strikes and you're out" law in Maryland. Such laws require people convicted of a third violent or serious felony to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly rejected such a proposal on the grounds that current law is strict enough. State law already provides for a no-parole sentence of 25 years on a third conviction for a violent crime and life imprisonment on a fourth conviction.
Mr. Coker said he doubts that those polled knew about Maryland's three- and four-strikes laws.
A little more than half of the respondents expressed confidence in their local court systems while 81 percent said they have confidence in their local police departments.
As the state moves closer to the Sept. 13 primary for the governor's office and scores of others, candidates will continue to focus on crime in an attempt to woo voters, Mr. Coker said. And because the issue is so broad and one-sided -- nobody, of course, is for crime -- it is unlikely to determine many races, he suggested.
"Crime is going to get a lot of political attention," said Mr. Coker. "Whether or not it necessarily will do anything to improve the quality of their lives is yet to be seen."
DO YOU FEEL SAFE?
STATE VOTERS were asked in a statewide poll, "What is the single most important issue facing Maryland today?" Their answers:
Crime/drugs ....... ...... 38%
Economy/jobs ...... ...... 19
Education ......... ...... 13
Taxes/gov't spending ..... 11
Health care ....... ....... 9
Social/moral issues ....... 5
Guns ............ ......... 2
Roads/transportation ...... 1
Environment ..... ......... 1
Other ........... ......... 1
THEY WERE ASKED
if they feel safe walking on their streets at night. Those who said "yes":
Statewide ........ ........ 66%
Eastern Shore .... ......... 74
Baltimore County ........... 68
Baltimore City ............. 48
Central Maryland suburbs ... 72
Prince George's County ..... 58
Montgomery County .......... 76
Western Maryland ........... 75