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May 10, 2010

Will the continued drop in crime rates help Democrats deflect the usual "soft-on-crime" attack?

This post's question about the usual crime, punishment and politics dialogue is inspired by this intriguing article in today's Washington Post, which is headlined "Drop in crime might be a boost for O'Malley." Here is how the piece starts:

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.

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The drop in crime, coming amidst the so-called harsh sentences routinely complained about on this site, a plethora of mandatory minimums, the continuing judicial rejection to per se challenges to the death penalty, and last year's slight uptick in executions, reminds me of the old story of the villagers and the elephants.

A village had had a problem with elephants occasionally rampaging through town. In response, the villagers built a high stone wall around the village, a project bearing considerable and continuing expense, since the wall had to be continually patched and fortified. But sure enough, elephant ramapages sharply declined.

After a couple of years, one of the less mature villagers suggested to The Elders that they should get rid of that nasty wall because, after all, "the number of elephant rampages is way down."

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2010 9:09:09 AM

Another of the younger villagers supported keeping the wall. However, noting that years of pressure from "Get Tough on Elephants" types had resulted in a wall that was 7,654 meters high, the youth nonetheless ventured to suggest that this might be going a bit overboard, at least if the purpose of wall-building was to keep elephants out.

And so the Elders were eventually persuaded. And to the surprise of only a few in the village, it was found that a wall with a more parsimonious altitude - namely, sufficient, but no higher than necessary - had much the same effect.

Posted by: Michael Drake | May 10, 2010 7:27:13 PM

Moral of Story: If the village had more nuance and less ideological screeching about how harmless the elephants have become, and that they'd turn into parakeets if only shown sufficient compassion, we'd have a more sensible, and safer, village.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2010 11:40:04 PM

Mr. Drake:

superb response!

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | May 10, 2010 11:41:23 PM

Those who desire "more nuance and less ideological screeching" should lead by example.

The answer to the question in the title is "Yes."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | May 11, 2010 8:33:56 AM

The show, The Wire, is about Baltimore politician amoral shenanigans with crime.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 11, 2010 9:14:23 AM

Prof., the short answer is "no".

Don't ever underestimate the "fear of crime" as a political motivator. You can have 50 studies for every Polly Klaas or Chelsea King that show crime ebbing and it will not make a bit of a difference.

The Democrats in Congress are well aware of this -- this is why the 100 to 1 ratio for crack remains. And will remain.

Posted by: Ferris Bueller | May 11, 2010 5:11:19 PM

I am a Police Officer in Maryland, and I've been consistently disappointed with court outcomes, and am well on my way to becoming part of the disenfranchised police force that is so prevalent in this area. I recently arrested an ADULT male after a lengthy and dangerous car chase. He was driving a stolen vehicle, and was charged accordingly. Upon researching the defendant, I found he had two previous cases, with IDENTICAL circumstances. BOTH of those cases were placed on the "inactive stet" docket. My case was also placed on the stet docket. It's my understanding that a defendant can only have ONE case stet docketed. Additional offenses are supposed to be prosecuted, and the original charge re-tried. Yet this defendant had now gotten THREE. I see this day-in and day-out. I've charged a certain individual with CDS paraphernalia a dozen times(literally, a dozen). That same individual has over 20 other charges for the same offense from other officers. Every one of those charges was stet docketed, and none has ever been prosecuted. The Asst. States Atty. said it was their offices "policy" to stet docket all CDS paraphernailia charges. The reason for this is because they take up too much of the courts time. I have personally observed hundreds of solid, prosecutable cases pushed aside for reasons of expediency or convenience of the court. As long as these processes and policies are in place, and as long as the courts look the other way for defendants in the interest of 'saving time', Maryland will ALWAYS have a high crime problem, regardless of the 'creative' ways the administrations have developed to minimize reporting them. I'll keep arresting and charging people who commit crimes, and I'll keep coming to court when summoned. And I'll also continue to leave court disappointed. I used to take it personally, and get offended. Now I just reassure myself that it's job security.

Posted by: Officer Friendly | May 12, 2010 1:46:20 PM

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