Joining the fight against violent crime

U.S. attorney: Murder cases are fine, but feds still need to play bigger role on guns.

February 01, 2002

THREE CHEERS to U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio for agreeing to prosecute Javas Hall and members of the Hot Boys gang, all alleged miscreant killers. Nothing wrong with lending a federal hand in the local battle to make city streets safer. No need to apologize for any perceived turf incursions.

This is what the U.S. attorney's office needs to do, what it has needed to do for too long and what this page has been imploring it to do for years. Take more violent crime cases. Send more killers and gun-toters to far-away federal prisons for extended vacations. Make it clear to everyone that the U.S. attorney's office will be the hammer behind the local push against violent crime.

If anything, Mr. DiBiagio needs to embrace this philosophy more vigorously, not less.

The reason should be clear: It has worked in other cities.

In Richmond, Va., federal prosecutors have been cracking down on gun crime for years and winning serious jail time for even minor violators. One poor fool got busted for public urination but had a gun on him and got a multi-year federal sentence. The message: Carry a gun, go to jail. It has been repeated in that city time after time, to the point where criminals now fear the law and its consequences.

The results have been stunning.

In 1999, Richmond (with a population of about 200,000) recorded only 72 slayings, down from a record high of 160 in 1994.

The same story has been unfolding in Boston, where federal prosecutors have also taken an aggressive stance on small crimes. Working with local law enforcement, they use gun violations or any other eligible infractions to hit criminals with stiff penalties.

As a result, Boston (whose population is about 500,000) had only 34 killings in 1999 - the lowest number since 1961.

Baltimore, meanwhile, can't yet dream of body counts so low. This city, with a population of about 600,000, is now recording fewer than 300 murders each year, but the number is still higher than 250. By comparison, that's atrocious.

No question, the state's criminal justice system shoulders most of the responsibility for attacking violent crime. Local law enforcement gets most of the cases, and in many cases, state laws provide the harshest possible penalties for the violations.

But as we have pointed out before, the state system doesn't work the way it should. The state's attorney's office continues to set murderers free with its mistakes, evidentiary violations and other bungling. Police too often forward bad or insufficient evidence to prosecutors for their cases. And the courts offer pitifully low sentences for the worst offenders.

Things are moving in the right direction, but only in fits and starts. The system is still a woefully long way from being effective.

That's where Mr. DiBiagio's opportunity - and obligation - lies. In a city so besieged by violence, so overrun with gun-toting criminals, it can't make sense for the federal prosecutor to stand out of the fray.

Mr. DiBiagio can provide strength and consistency in violent crime prosecutions while the state system is repaired. He could even take a leadership role in reshaping crime-fighting efforts in Baltimore.

Perhaps Mr. DiBiagio's move to take the Javas Hall and Hot Boys cases is a first step, the opening salvo in what is to be a barrage of aggressive federal activity against violent crime in the city.

We hope that's true. And we hope his actions will contradict the disturbing indications he has given about backing off gun prosecutions, staying away from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and concentrating his efforts more on public corruption than persistent violence.

The city needs Mr. DiBiagio's help and his commitment to build the kind of partnership with local law enforcement that has throttled violent crime in other cities. There's no such thing as soon enough for him to get started.

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