Drop in crime might be a boost for O'Malley

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to announce Monday that the state recorded fewer violent crimes last year than at any point since 1979 and that the overall number of crimes dipped to an all-time low since Maryland police began uniformly reporting them more than 35 years ago.

By another key measure -- the likelihood that a resident will fall victim to murder, rape, robbery or violent assault -- Maryland is expected to drop out of the nation's 10 most dangerous states for the first time in more than two decades.

Maryland's improving public safety record stands out even amid a national phenomenon of falling crime rates, including a precipitous drop last year in the number of homicides across the greater Washington region.

The good news comes at an opportune time for O'Malley: at the outset of his reelection campaign. Over the coming months, O'Malley (D), who won the governor's mansion in part on a reputation as Baltimore's tough-on-crime mayor, is expected to reclaim the mantle of crime fighter.

But with crime rates falling fast nationwide, assessing how much credit O'Malley deserves for Maryland's record lows remains a tough task. Recent high-profile crimes, including the killing of an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl in December that exposed major gaps in the state's supervision of sex predators and the slaying in February of a teacher at a state-run juvenile detention facility in Prince George's County, have provided entry points for O'Malley's challenger, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), to question the state's progress.

During this year's General Assembly session, Ehrlich criticized O'Malley and the state's Democratic-controlled legislature for failing to more quickly tighten sex-offender rules. Last week, Ehrlich accused O'Malley and powerful Democrats opposed to capital punishment of "shenanigans" to circumvent the state's death penalty laws, effectively maintaining a de facto moratorium on executions for Maryland's five death-row inmates.

In an interview Saturday, O'Malley said he was looking forward to making the case that his administration's award-winning tactics aimed at cracking down on violent repeat offenders, tightening parole and probation standards, targeting at-risk youths and clearing the state's backlog of unanalyzed DNA samples have made Marylanders safer.

"They haven't always made headlines, but there's a lot of things that we have been doing over the last four years on a statewide basis that have helped local law enforcement prevent crime, solve crime and therefore save lives," O'Malley said. "It's time to report back to the public the things that we're doing well."

Taking credit for reducing crime will be a politically tricky task for O'Malley on the campaign trail. Those accolades tend not to flow to state leaders but to local police officers, chiefs and municipal officials who fund public safety budgets.

On Monday, O'Malley can count on an important first acknowledgment from officials in Prince George's when he travels there to announce the state's final 2009 crime numbers.

Prince George's, which O'Malley has said once constituted a "crescent of death" around the District, recorded 27 fewer killings in 2009 than in 2008, playing a significant role in Maryland's 12 percent drop in homicides.

Maryland had 33,614 violent crimes last year, 5 percent fewer than in 2008, and 215,878 total crimes, an 8 percent decline. By comparison, 242,207 total crimes were reported in Maryland in 1975.

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