Crime and Punishment

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

AS THE DEMOCRATIC candidate for mayor of Baltimore in 1999, Martin O'Malley set a goal of cutting the city's annual number of murders to 175; they were then running at more than 300 a year. He failed. Baltimore's homicide tally looks likely to reach or surpass 270 this year, maintaining the city's standing as one of the nation's deadliest.

As the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland in 2002, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. also set a goal: to reform the state's decrepit, Dickensian system of juvenile jails. He also appears to have fallen short, though that record is not as easily quantified.

One may give both men, who face each other as gubernatorial candidates in the Nov. 7 elections, credit for setting ambitious agendas. One may fairly conclude that each made efforts and some progress in the face of daunting obstacles -- Mr. O'Malley cut Baltimore's murder rate and Mr. Ehrlich closed one of Maryland's worst juvenile jails. Still, the bottom line is that neither made good on his campaign promise to solve a painful, long-standing problem.

Messrs. O'Malley and Ehrlich, in the heat of the campaign homestretch, are busy bashing each other over issues of crime and punishment. They are key questions for voters throughout the state, particularly in the high-crime areas of Baltimore and Prince George's County, and they played a prominent role in the candidates' back-to-back debates this past weekend.

Mr. O'Malley, in particular, has been put on the defensive because of Baltimore's stubbornly high murder rate. It's a good bet that he rues the day he promised to cut homicides to 175 annually, calling it a "realistic goal"; during his term as mayor, which began with this decade, they have never dipped below 253. The murder rate did decline sharply in the mayor's first couple of years in office, as he pushed police to take a more focused, aggressive stance in the city's most crime-ridden precincts -- including the routine arrest of loiterers, which has drawn fire from civil libertarians. But progress on homicides stalled after 2002 even as other categories of violent crime fell sharply. And it speaks poorly of Mr. O'Malley's managerial abilities that he has overseen a revolving door of four police chiefs during his nearly seven years in office -- not counting three others who served on an interim basis.

In the case of Maryland's juvenile justice system, state officials insist that they have made progress in addressing staffing problems, including poor pay and qualifications for many of those who work with young detainees. They closed what was the state's most notoriously violent juvenile treatment facility, the Charles H. Hickey Jr. reform school in Baltimore County -- but without a coherent plan for housing its 144 youthful residents.

Signs persist that the problem is far from fixed. Less than two months ago the state's independent monitor of juvenile facilities, Katherine A. Perez, wrote that she remained concerned about inadequate staffing and "the threat to life, health and safety" of youths at Baltimore City's Juvenile Justice Center. In May, Ms. Perez reported that youths were sleeping on the floor at one overcrowded jail and that monitors had seen a male staff member throw punches at a rowdy girl in another.

The hard problems of drugs and gangs are impediments to denting the problems that both men inherited. But the disappointing results in Maryland's juvenile jails and on Baltimore's rough streets raise questions about the managerial abilities of both candidates.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company