Howard County's criminal justice system is doing the best it can to punish and rehabilitate convicted criminals, a panel of local law enforcement officials told a cable television audience last night.
The panel's comments and explanation of how law enforcement works in the county came during a made-for-TV "town meeting" organized by the County Executive's Ad Hoc Committee on Human Rights.
The committee's Law Enforcement/Criminal Justice Group said it wanted to use last night's meeting to explain to county residents how police, prosecutors, public defenders and judges work together.
Speaking to a sparse studio audience of about 30 people -- nearly all of them involved in some aspect of law enforcement -- two judges, the county police chief, state's attorney and chief public defender touched on a wide range of topics during the hourlong Cable 15 broadcast, including the rising number of crimes in the county and what is being done to prosecute the adults and juveniles who commit them.
"Business is booming. I don't see any shortage of work for the state's attorney's office, the judges or the public defender," said Police Chief James N. Robey.
"When I began my career in Howard County 29 years ago, we arrested maybe 300 or 400 people per year. But then a lot more people came to Howard County."
County police made more than 7,000 arrests last year, Chief Robey said, and serious crime rose 5 percent.
The largest increase was in the number of juvenile offenders -- up 23 percent to 1,657 from 1993 to 1994, according to the county's most recent crime statistics.
To fight the steep rise in juvenile crime, both the police and the state's attorney's office are trying more alternative sentencing options, said Chief Robey and Marna McLendon, the state's attorney.
"With alternative sentencing, we can turn a youthful offender around," Ms. McLendon said.
Among the county's more innovative ideas, they said, is the Police Department's new diversion program that keeps juvenile offenders from entering the criminal justice system.
For those juveniles in the program who undergo counseling, perform community service and make restitution, the recidivism rate is less than 8 percent, Chief Robey said.
The most offbeat topic of the panel discussion was an analysis of how Howard County's criminal justice system would fare if it were forced to handle a trial of the magnitude of the O. J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles.
"Obviously, Los Angeles can absorb that kind of case," Ms. McLendon said, noting that Los Angeles County has more than 800 prosecutors and her office only employs 24. "Our office can do [those kinds of trials], but it would disrupt everything else that is going on."
A recent criminal case of some magnitude was the trial of the two men accused of killing Pam Basu in a 1992 carjacking. The state's attorneys office exceeded its annual budget by about $50,000 because of the cost of prosecuting that case.
A trial similar to the O. J. Simpson trial also would overwhelm the county's courts, which are waiting for the appointment of a fifth Circuit Court judge.
"I don't know how a place like Howard County could handle a case like that," said former Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr., who retired Monday. He noted that the longest criminal trial he ever presided over was five weeks, while the Simpson trial is expected to last six months.