Police Unit Will Focus on Eliminating Repeat Offenses

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

Career criminals in Howard County: Be aware. The police will be watching you more closely.

The Howard County police department plans a special unit that will focus on repeat offenders in hopes of reducing the county's crime rate. "We want to focus on career criminals," Police Chief William McMahon said. "We know that there's a few people who are causing a lot of problems in our community, crime-wise."

Although Howard's crime rate is relatively low compared with other jurisdictions in the Washington region, the county does experience periodic spikes in certain categories.

McMahon said focusing on repeat offenders will be particularly useful in crimes such as robberies and burglaries, for which perpetrators tend to have higher rates of recidivism. The unit initially will include five officers, and officials expect it will be operating by the end of the year.

Officers will try to identify repeat offenders through surveillance, by being more familiar with the terms of an offender's parole and by working with prosecutors to ensure that repeat offenders get appropriate sentences, McMahon said.

According to two frequently cited studies on recidivism by the U.S. Justice Department, more than two-thirds of released prisoners were arrested again within three years. The studies, conducted in 1983 and 1994 by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, show that rates of repeat arrest for offenses involving property, drugs and public order were particularly high.

Police departments as diverse as Detroit and San Antonio have created similar units to help weed out career criminals. Locally, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have units for repeat offenders.

Cpl. Stephen Pacheco, a spokesman for the Prince George's police department, said the unit works on some of the department's highest-profile cases. The group has been part of the department's operations for more than 20 years and works within the criminal investigation unit.

He said officers have collaborated with the auto crimes team to target thieves and recover stolen vehicles. In 2005, members of the unit assisted with the arrest of a rape suspect 20 years after the crime.

Experts such as Todd R. Clear, a distinguished professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, say cracking down on repeat offenders won't necessarily stop crime because other criminals will replace them. The key might lie in which types of repeat offenders are targeted, Clear said.

He said getting a repeat sex offender off the street, for instance, could have a permanent effect on a community's crime rate.

Howard's repeat-offenders unit is one of several new policing strategies included in the county's budget for fiscal 2009. The department, which has 423 sworn officers, expects to add 24 positions, including personnel to its child abuse and domestic violence units and a second officer in the gang awareness unit, McMahon said.

The police chief said he knows the repeat-offenders unit won't be a panacea, but it will send an important message to career criminals.

"We should be smart about how we police, and we should focus on those people causing the most problems," he said.


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