Crime numbers stir dispute

Ehrlich, Townsend swap accusations in trying to interpret statistics

July 20, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A day after accusing Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of manipulating statistics to exaggerate a drop in youth crime, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. released a copy of an internal Department of Juvenile Justice e-mail yesterday that did little to substantiate his claim.

Aides for Ehrlich, a Republican candidate for governor, said they believe the document shows that state officials are trying to hide the true level of juvenile crime by sending arrested teen-agers home, rather than taking them into custody.

The May 15, 2001, e-mail from area director Delmas Wood to his staff lists five acceptable reasons for arrested teen-agers to be held in a juvenile justice facility. Those include the teens who are charged with a violent crime or are ordered held by a judge.

"I don't want to see any other reasons given" on daily detention reports, the e-mail said.

Ehrlich said that letting more young offenders return to the streets undercuts Townsend's assertion that juveniles are committing less crime. "Just because she uses one measuring stick doesn't mean we buy it, or that it accurately reflects the condition of the system," he said last night.

But state criminal justice officials and Townsend aides contend that Ehrlich has misinterpreted the detention policy, which they say has no bearing on the drop in juvenile crime claimed by Townsend at a candidate forum this week.

The 28 percent reduction in violent crimes between 1996 and 2000 is based on arrest records reported by local police departments, they said. It is not affected by whether young suspects are held in a facility or released to their families.

Comparing the crime totals with the number of post-arrest detainees, they said, is mixing apples and oranges.

"These guys have absolutely no understanding of the juvenile justice system," said Michael Sarbanes, a deputy chief of staff for Townsend. "The arrest numbers come from the police department; juvenile justice has nothing to do with it."

Juvenile justice issues were a hot topic at a candidate forum Thursday sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and are a key theme in the campaigns of the two gubernatorial candidates.

Townsend has been Gov. Parris N. Glendening's point person on criminal justice but her reputation has been tarnished by revelations of abuse at youth boot camps in Western Maryland and at large detention facilities. Ehrlich is doing his best to turn the issue to his advantage.

Responding to a question at the forum, the lieutenant governor said the state had learned from its mistakes and the system was heading in the right direction.

"I took on this issue because I believe very much that each person has so much potential, if we can only allow them to get it," Townsend said. "We had a 28 percent reduction in juvenile crime, but we can do a lot more."

Minutes later, Ehrlich accused his opponent - who had left War Memorial building for a fund-raiser in Prince George's County - of misleading the audience.

"When you hear this allegation that we've had a 28 percent reduction in juvenile offenders, that simply is not the case," Ehrlich said, adding that the state was purposely not including some arrests. "We have memos from the Department of Juvenile Justice, and you all deserve to see those memos. They reflect what I'm talking about."

The Ehrlich campaign released only one document yesterday, the e-mail. Campaign aide Paul E. Schurick said he would not disclose the remainder because they "have been given to us on the condition that we not release them."

Limits on who is detained at state juvenile justice facilities are necessary, said Lee Towers, a department spokesman, so space is available for the most violent offenders.

The crime reduction figure cited by Townsend is based on arrest reports and population figures in 1996 and 2000, compiled by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

The Ehrlich campaign notes that the total number of juvenile arrests for all crimes has risen from 41,694 in 1992 to 49,082 in 2000, an 18 percent increase. But the juvenile population, too, has grown during that period, rising by 12 percent from 1996 to 2000.

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