Anti-crime office puts most funds in community groups

State agency also directs U.S. grants to research

police get lesser amounts

Spending being investigated

September 19, 2002|By Gail Gibson and Michael Dresser | Gail Gibson and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The state crime-control office credited by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend with making Maryland safer directs the largest chunk of its federal grant dollars not to police agencies, but to community and church groups, schools and citizen patrols for programs designed to clean up troubled neighborhoods or discourage young people from turning to crime.

The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, under scrutiny by federal investigators examining whether federal funds were used for political purposes, also awards millions of dollars for crime-prevention research. A lesser but still significant amount is awarded directly to police and prosecutors for tools such as radio systems and crime lab equipment.

Much of the agency's work, however, is focused on distributing hundreds of relatively modest grants to finance community programs that include after-school activities, youth sports leagues, improved street lighting and, in one instance, an Easter egg hunt.

A review of about 1,200 federal grants awarded over the past two years shows that more than half went to youth diversion and neighborhood improvement efforts, with spending of more than $20.8 million.

Such awards could create potential good will for Townsend, who has overseen the office since its creation in 1995 and who has highlighted her crime-fighting credentials as she campaigns for governor. But Townsend and agency leaders say the grant dollars are buying effective crime prevention, not political support.

"What builds good will is effectiveness in making an impact that's positive in the community," Townsend said. She said individual grants are made on the basis of need rather than political considerations.

Stephen P. Amos, executive director of the state agency, said in a recent interview that the solutions to crime problems are generally not to be found at the state level.

"Whether it's a neighborhood watch or an after-school program, many of these programs are demonstrated to be cost-effective and they really do impact communities," he said.

The Maryland agency's emphasis on grass-roots prevention is part of a long-running national debate over how best to balance prevention and punishment when it comes to spending on crime programs.

One early skirmish after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 was over federal spending for "midnight basketball" programs -- a crime prevention strategy favored by the Clinton administration but derided by some conservative lawmakers as feel-good, pork-barrel spending.

By the end of the decade, the tenor of the debate had softened. After a series of deadly school shootings in the late 1990s, including the rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado, lawmakers were united in approving federal spending for "character education" programs for young people -- an idea that Townsend promotes now in her campaign commercials.

In Maryland, federal crime dollars have gone to support character education programs -- such as the "Rites of Passage" youth development program at New Jerusalem Deliverance Temple in Baltimore, which received $11,250 last year for its efforts to "build character, self esteem and unity."

Other youth programs include the Pocomoke City Police Department's $1,500 grant this summer to organize a summer street-hockey league. In Baltimore County, the Essex Church of God received $2,000 to cover the cost of youth activities such as "arts and crafts materials, prizes, field trips, food and beverages for community events" that included an Easter egg hunt, a community clean-up and a sports day.

National advocates and local police say such intensely local prevention programs have proven results.

In Baltimore County, police spokesman Bill Toohey credits after-school programs such as those run by the Police Athletic League with helping reduce juvenile crime in the county from 30.2 percent of all arrests for violent crime in 1995 to 21.4 percent last year.

These kinds of programs have the backing of the White House. Jennifer de Vallance, a spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the Bush administration encourages the practice of making small grants to neighborhood-based programs rather than trying to run anti-crime initiatives from large state bureaucracies.

"The bottom line is, we know that if we can prevent kids from using drugs by the time they're 18, they're much less likely to ever try drugs as an adult," de Vallance said.

Maryland's crime-control office, operating this year with a $95.7 million budget, has made a priority of mobilizing community groups and preventing juvenile crime -- goals also reflected in the agency's signature HotSpots program, funded largely through state grants.

But the agency also has helped fund a number of broader, more far-reaching initiatives that, in some instances, have brought national attention.

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