Crime and the Next Governor

August 29, 1994

Maryland's next governor is going to take a far tougher stance on combating crime than any previous chief executive. All of the major candidates have embraced forceful positions on the criminal-justice system. The problem could be paying for these expensive propositions -- and making sure the solutions don't make matters worse.

Only one candidate, American Joe Miedusiewski, has come close to explaining how he would pay for his expensive crime-fighting program -- and he balances the books by raiding the state's "rainy day fund" for fiscal emergencies. That could jeopardize Maryland's triple-A bond rating.

The only other suggestions for financing crime proposals are to build no-frills prisons (Ellen R. Sauerbrey) and to use all traffic fines -- which now underwrite the District Court system -- for public safety (Helen D. Bentley). There are flaws in each candidate's approach, however.

What drives up costs is the expense of keeping more offenders behind bars. This is something candidates don't like to discuss and constituents, alarmed about rising crime, don't want to confront. Housing an inmate costs $20,000 a year; building a new prison costs $70,000 per inmate.

In the case of Mrs. Bentley's crime-fighting plan -- the toughest so far -- her proposals to end parole, work release and good time credits for violent offenders and to give life terms to criminals committing a second violent act would eventually cost $1 billion. Added to the state's anticipated four-year deficit of $1 billion, Mrs. Bentley would have the impossible task of reducing state outlays by $2 billion: The entire general fund budget, excluding local aid, entitlements and public safety funds, is only $2.3 billion.

There are other problems, too. With more long-term prisoners, jails would become tinder boxes of anger. Inmates would have nothing to lose -- and no incentives to curb violent tendencies. Moreover, most prisoners still will eventually return to society -- more embittered and hardened.

Mrs. Bentley isn't alone in her desire to toss criminals in jail and throw away the key. So does Mrs. Sauerbrey. Parris Glendening and Bill Shepard favor tougher mandatory minimum sentences. Mr. Miedusiewski wants to abolish parole but require mandatory rehabilitation programs. Mickey Steinberg and Mary Boergers stress alternative sentences and rehabilitation in prisons.

We think the candidates for governor have an obligation to detail for voters not only their specific plan to curb crime in Maryland, but also how they intend to pay for it. And not in vague platitudes ("cut waste, fraud and abuse" or "grow the economy") but in hard dollars and cents. If we're going to embark on a major crime-fighting initiative, let's be honest about how much it will cost taxpayers.

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