Getting away with murder

February 14, 1999

THE CONTRAST is astonishing. Last year, Boston (population 558,000) recorded 35 homicides; Baltimore (population 675,000) had 314. Even New York, with 10 times more people, had just 629 homicides.

These numbers tell a powerful story. Starting nine years ago with record homicide rates of 152 and 2,245, respectively, Boston and New York began reversing the tide.

Surely Baltimore, too, should be able to curb the lethal bloodshed on its streets.

Yet the prospect is not promising. The year has started with another wave of killings. Virtually every day brings another homicide.

Crime and gun violence are likely to be major issues in the campaigns this spring and summer for Baltimore mayor and City Council. As the rhetoric intensifies, police and law enforcement agencies will be under mounting pressure to take action - any action - to deflect criticism.

Adding to pressure is the pending release of a study by Harvard criminologists who devised Boston's winning strategy to cut youth killings. They have examined patterns of violent gun use by Baltimore criminals for the past 10 months as part of the Safe and Sound Campaign, a multimillion-dollar drive to create a safer environment for children and youth.

City Hall is desperate for a palliative. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, even before seeing the details, has pledged to implement the Harvard recommendations, which are to be released in the next few weeks. Yet the mayor, a cautious former prosecutor who has said he will not seek a fourth term, has rejected past calls for tough anti-crime policies, citing serious civil liberties concerns.

Since 1967, Baltimore's annual homicide rate has dipped below 200 only twice. In the past nine years, it has consistently been 304 or higher. The all-time record of 353 was registered in 1993.

Over these 32 years, Baltimore's homicide rates have soared under four mayors, six police commissioners and seven state's attorneys. This shared responsibility is of little consolation. With 46.5 homicides per 100,000 people, Maryland's largest city has America's fourth highest murder rate.

And Baltimore has sustained its high murder rate at a time when homicide rates are plummeting nationally - down nearly 40 percent since 1991.

Why has Baltimore failed when other cities have succeeded? No simple explanation exists. But Baltimore's murder plague is linked to the relatively late arrival of crack cocaine - compared, for example, with New York City - and a crack curse that has yet to run its course.

Even so, much of the blame for Baltimore's inability to address its prolonged murder crisis lies in the breakdown of the normal defenses put into place to protect a city's residents: police, prosecutors, courts and corrections institutions. As violence has numbed the public to fatalism, those agencies have been overrun by an avalanche of mundane, nonviolent cases. The system is so swamped it has lost its ability to treat killings as the No. 1 priority.

The result is disastrous: Killers are getting away with murder.

The criminal justice bureaucracies are in disarray. The presumably united front has dissolved into endless turf fights and finger pointing.

This must end.

The certainty of punishment for heinous crimes has to be reinstituted. Frivolous postponements that undo critical prosecutorial efforts have to stop. The entire system, from street cops to court and probation personnel, has to be infused with a renewed sense of common mission.

This won't be easy. But the necessary changes must be made and resources marshaled. The breakdown of the criminal justice system machinery in Baltimore is now so serious that only extraordinary, high-level intervention can produce required reforms quickly. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Mayor Schmoke must recognize this as a public emergency. They must take personal responsibility for ending demoralizing inefficiencies and self-defeating rivalries and ensuring that citizens receive swift justice.

The Boston model

Baltimore and other cities are intrigued by Boston's success because the city's approach seems to offer a shortcut. By channeling the prosecutions of suspected repeat murderers through the federal courts, Boston was able to bypass the vagaries of the local criminal justice system and persuade the criminal element that speedy punishment was certain.

Boston's ``Ceasefire'' began in mid-May 1995. Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, it grew out of a study into how guns were acquired and used by criminals. Under Ceasefire, a task force of federal, state and city agencies was assembled. It identified 1,300 ``serially offending'' gang members who were responsible for at least 60 percent of youth homicides. The gangs were given an ultimatum: Unless the killings and gun violence stopped, those involved would be prosecuted for every crime and infraction imaginable, including parole and probation violations.

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