Bill would boost court costs to aid anti-crime groups

Hot lines in need of cold cash to continue rewarding tipsters

March 09, 2006|By NICK SHIELDS | NICK SHIELDS,SUN REPORTER

If you've got the information that can crack a case, you might dial 866-7-LOCKUP.

That's the number for Metro Crime Stoppers, the nonprofit group that doles out rewards of up to $2,000 to tipsters who help bring criminals in the Baltimore area to justice. But now the organization, like its counterparts across the country, is hoping for a financial boost of its own.

A General Assembly bill, scheduled for a hearing today, would add $20 to the court costs assessed to convicted criminals. Most of the additional money would go into a trust fund and would be distributed to Metro Crime Stoppers and similar organizations in Maryland to help pay for rewards.

The bill is modeled after a Florida law designed to help Crime Stoppers organizations there. Such groups in other parts of the country also have struggled financially while they distribute thousands of dollars annually, officials of national organizations say.

"They've always been in the unfortunate situation," said Elaine Cloyd, president of Crime Stoppers USA. "The better they perform, the more it costs."

The Maryland bill is to be heard today by the House Judiciary Committee. A companion bill is to be heard next week by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Del. Marshall T. Goodwin, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the House bill, said increasing court costs to boost rewards for catching criminals is a prudent investment in public safety.

"I believe that if the committee really takes a stern look at this and hears the success stories of the program, I think they will take this into serious consideration," Goodwin said.

Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, said the General Assembly has turned down past attempts to add to court costs.

"It won't be easy," he said of the bill's prospects. "You can only get so much court costs out of the defendants."

Fewer groups

About 10 years ago, said Jeff Penn, chairman of Crime Solvers of Montgomery County, which has no paid employees, Maryland had a dozen crime stopper or crime solver organizations. Today, Penn said, he knows of six, including groups in Prince George's, Harford, Montgomery and Charles counties.

He said other organizations that folded would still be around if they had had sufficient funding. When there is a lack of money to promote an organization, its members lose interest, he said.

Metro Crime Stoppers, which covers the city and five area counties, has one paid employee who works in a small office on the first floor of Baltimore police headquarters. The organization has a $53,000 budget.

Its slogan is "Anonymity Eliminates Intimidation," and it offers a hot line that residents can call when police ask for help finding a suspect.

After calling in a tip, an informant is given a four-digit code number. The caller is then asked to call back in about four weeks. A caller whose tip leads to an arrest and indictment is eligible for a reward of up to $2,000.

The organization does not have caller ID and does not trace calls. Callers who identify themselves over the phone forfeit their eligibility for a cash reward.

Point system

The organization's board meets monthly with police representatives to determine how tips have helped with investigations. The officials then use a point system to decide how much money a tipster should receive.

Elizabeth Mitchell, program coordinator for Metro Crime Stoppers, said the organization has paid about $450,000 in rewards since it was formed in 1981.

To distribute the money, a board member from the group and a police official determine a place to meet the tipster. There, the tipster gives the Crime Stoppers officials the four-digit code number. If the numbers match, the tipster receives the reward in cash.

Derek Baliles, police coordinator for Crime Solvers of Montgomery County, said he has taken anonymous calls for about eight years. Since 2005, he said, his organization has received tips that led to wanted people and to solving two homicide cases and an armed robbery home invasion.

With Florida crime stopper organizations struggling financially, the Florida Association of Crime Stoppers pushed for a bill similar to the one proposed in Maryland. The Florida bill passed in 1998.

"We also wanted criminals to start paying for the rewards, compensation for their wrongdoing," said Jeff Van Camp, president of the Florida Association of Crime Stoppers.

Budget increases

Before the bill was passed, he said, the annual budget for Gulf Coast Crime Stoppers, based in Pensacola, Fla., averaged $10,000 to $20,000. Since the bill passed, he said, the organization has had an annual budget of about $104,000.

If the Maryland bill becomes law, Metro Crime Stoppers and Montgomery Crime Solvers plan to start student versions of the program in which students could call a hot line anonymously if they saw someone with a weapon or drugs in or around their schools.

Mitchell said she hopes the bill gains support.

"We're trying to stay afloat, she said. "We're here for the police, and it's hard."

nicholas.shields@baltsun.com

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