McLendon tough enough on crime? Howard County: State's attorney may have valid reason for high rate of cases dropped.

February 04, 1997

EVERY CANDIDATE for prosecutor pledges to be tough on crime. Marna McLendon was no exception when she lost in her first race against then-incumbent Howard County State's Attorney William Hymes 10 years ago.

Having captured the state's attorney's office three years ago, however, the high number of District Court cases her office chooses not to prosecute creates the perception that she is a cream puff on crime. But that is not necessarily so.

Howard fails to prosecute 56 percent of District Court cases, far higher than the 39 percent regional average. But subtract cases channeled through the county's innovative "diversion" program for underage drinking and lesser drug offenses and the difference between Howard and its neighbors is negligible.

It would be easy to argue, as Ms. McLendon does, that the diversion program removes these drug and drinking cases from the court system and treats them as the health problems they are. Instead of branding as criminals 18-year-olds caught with a bottle of brew for the first time, the program orders them to treatment or educational programs. The court places these offenders' cases on its inactive docket and prosecutors usually drop them if no other violations occur within a year.

Sending these cases out of the court system to county health officials gets these first-time offenders accused of misdemeanors the help they need. It also frees prosecutors to tackle more serious cases, which Ms. McLendon says is happening. Her office's District Court prosecutors focus on repeat violations, drunken driving and domestic violence, she says.

Neither prosecutors nor the judicial system has the resources to try each of the more than 4,000 criminal cases that reach Howard District Court each year. The high percentage of cases that Ms. McLendon's office drops raises eyebrows. But as ZTC important as sheer numbers of dismissals must be the priorities of the state's attorney with these cases and its success in prosecuting Circuit Court cases.

Come next election, voters would be wise to turn a deaf ear to "tough on crime" sound bites and probe further to decide which candidates for state's attorney hold priorities similar to their own.

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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