Crime found slowing as incarceration rises

November 03, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The pace of crime in Maryland is slowing as more and more criminals are imprisoned, but the state is far from a safe place to live, according to a conservative group that released a Report Card on Crime yesterday.

Maryland was ranked fourth-highest in terms of violent crime rates, behind Florida, New York and California, and had the eighth-highest crime rate, said the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The solution, say leaders of the bipartisan group of state legislators, is to put criminals -- especially repeat violent offenders -- in jail longer by establishing minimum sentencing guidelines and ensuring prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. "So if we want to stop crime, the answer is simple: getting tough works," said council President Samuel A. Brunelli.

But others disagree.

"There is no connection between rates of violent crime and incarceration," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The U.S. Department of Justice issued a report in February saying that crime can only be fought by understanding its root causes.

"While sentencing for violent crimes grew substantially harsher between 1975 and 1989, the number of violent crimes failed to decrease," the report said. It added that increased incarceration prevented some violence, "but crimes by persons still in the community offset these preventive effects."

Alfred Blumstein, former president of the American Society of Criminology, acknowledged that crime rates rose in the 1960s and 1970s while prison population declined. But the professor at Carnegie Mellon University said the council's reasoning breaks down for recent years. "What they've put forward is a set of data that is intended to make you believe that the more you incarcerate, the more you will reduce violent crime," he said. "If you look at it through the late 1980s, we have been increasing prison populations but having no strong effect on murder and robbery."

The council -- once chaired by Maryland Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- presented figures showing that from 1960 to 1980, the incarceration rate for violent crime in Maryland fell 82 percent, while violent crime rose 463 percent, compared with a 271 percent increase nationally.

That trend was changed over the next 12 years. Maryland's violent crime incarceration rate increased 81 percent while the rate of violent crimes committed rose by 17 percent, the council said.

"Maryland is still paying the price for those really horrible decisions made in the 1960s," said Bill Myers, the council's vice president for research and planning, referring to a trend in which criminals did not serve long prison sentences. "Maryland has begun to move in the right direction, but it has not moved there fast enough and it has not moved aggressively."

Council leaders argued that 20 years ago, politicians started to emphasize social programs as a way to combat crime, and it was only recently that thoughts have returned to jailing criminals.

"Now is the time to begin the task of making incarceration, once again, a true deterrent to crime . . . " said Colorado state Sen. Ray Powers, R-Colorado Springs, the council's incoming chairman. "For a generation, Americans have been forced to live in a climate of fear, and they're sick of it."

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