Overwhelmed by crime wave, state sets summit


Violent crime has so overloaded Maryland's law enforcement system that it is "close to gridlock," the state's top law officer said yesterday as he announced plans for a summit meeting of government, business and community representatives next month to plan new strategies.

"I'm saying it's time to mobilize resources," said Bishop L. Robinson, public safety and correctional services secretary. The meeting on violent crime, to be held March 19 at the Baltimore Convention Center, is expected to attract 800 participants.

"We've got to tell the truth," Mr. Robinson said. "At every point, the whole system is so overloaded, it's close to gridlock. The system as it's constructed can't handle it."

Mr. Robinson hopes that by highlighting violent crime and the state criminal justice system's beleaguered status, a political consensus can be reached for increased funding for public safety.

The proposed summit -- similar to one convened three years ago by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to address Maryland's drug problem -- will bring together law enforcement, government, business and community leaders in an attempt to reverse the upward trend of violent crime in Baltimore and around the state.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Robinson cited a series of recent crimes in the Baltimore area -- including a kidnap-murder and two other kidnappings that brought the arrests of four city youths -- as evidence of a growing threat to the quality of life in Maryland.

"There are many communities where people have a fear of leaving their homes, a fear of going to work, a fear of living in their homes," said the secretary, who spent four decades as a law officer in Baltimore. "All kinds of violent crime are being committed by people who have this air of impunity."

Over the last 16 years, violent crime has increased 37 percent statewide, while property crimes have climbed a modest 2.4 percent, according to statistics compiled by the state public safety department.

Last year, Baltimore recorded its second consecutive year with more than 300 murders -- a homicide toll that hasn't been seen since the city's shock-trauma system came on line in the early 1970s. Likewise, Prince George's and Montgomery counties both reached record numbers of slayings in 1991.

"Something has to be done," said Mr. Robinson, who acknowledged he had no new solutions, only an argument for a renewed attack on the problem. "We can't continue this tremendous drain of our human and financial resources."

Overcrowded prisons, parole officers with bloated caseloads, clogged court dockets and thousands of unserved fugitive warrants -- all of it the result of a system limited in its resources struggling with ever-growing numbers of violent repeat offenders, according to Mr. Robinson.

"There's no question we want to come out of this thing with a statewide strategy that will allow people to support increased resources for public safety," said the secretary, adding that state officials need to know if taxpayers are willing to pay for such measures.

"Everyone says you can't build your way out of the problem," added Mr. Robinson, referring to new prison construction. But, he said, when alternative sentencing is inappropriate for large numbers of repeat offenders, "What other choice is there?"

To better gauge the level of public support for new anti-crime initiatives, Governor Schaefer and Mr. Robinson will appear with State Police Superintendent Elmer H. Tippett on a statewide radio broadcast sponsored by WBAL-AM from 1 to 4 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 27.

Similarly, University of Maryland researchers are working on a poll examining statewide attitudes toward violent crime and its prevention.

Results of the survey are to be presented at the March 19 summit, which also is to feature addresses by U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director William Sessions.

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