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January 10, 2008

Another look at crime in Baltimore

I've written before about Baltimore's crime problems, usually giving credit to Gov. O'Malley, former mayor of Charm City.

But it's time to broach the subject again, because the FBI has released preliminary violent crime figures this week covering the first half of 2007, and the general trend for cities has been a decrease. Even Baltimore saw a significant drop in violent crime.

Well, except with respect to murders. Baltimore's first-half 2007 murders were 155, up 16.5% from the 133 murders in the first half of 2006.

Now, getting the first-half figures for murder at this date is a little like finding out the halftime score in a football game after the game is already over. We basically know the final totals already: "The city recorded 282 homicides in 2007, a slight increase over the previous year and the highest total since 1999, when 305 people were slain."

This means that the murder rate in Baltimore was about 44.3 per 100,000. I don't have the final figures for Washington, D.C. yet -- the total was 181 murders as of late December 31, up slightly from 2006. That would translate to 31.1 murders per 100,000 in Washington. Go, Baltimore!

Consider this: "New York's and Chicago's 2007 homicide totals were the lowest in more than 40 years, and in Philadelphia, slayings dipped slightly after reaching a nine-year high in 2006. But murders increased in several other big cities, including Atlanta, Miami and Dallas."

So am I being unfair in tarring Gov. O'Malley with this orgy of murder? Probably, although I'm a lot less unfair than the "Democratic lawmakers and police groups" referred to in the Washington Post:

If the pattern holds true for all of 2007, the overall drop would end a two-year increase in violent crime that provoked criticism of the Bush administration. Democratic lawmakers and police groups seized on the increase to highlight cuts in resources dedicated to law enforcement.
The Bush administration is responsible for violent crime? I'll give these folks the benefit of the doubt and assume they're being disingenuous rather than stupid.

Anyway, what to do?

How about increasing penalties for those convicted of gun crimes? Not bad. How about enhancing the ability to prosecute gang members? Not bad.

How about making it a misdemeanor to fail to report a missing firearm to police within three days? Surely, they're joking.

The justification for this policy is this: "'All too often we trace guns used in horrible crimes back to owners who claim their guns were stolen,' [Mayor] Dixon said." One would think that a person who knowingly or recklessly lent his gun for use in a crime could be prosecuted as an accessory. Now, I suppose prosecutors could say that it's too hard to prove intent, and that a failure to report might provide evidence of intent. At worst, the failure to report would justify some charge against the wrongdoer.

But it seems that this is more likely:
"The problem is that the people they are targeting, the people who would purposely allow it to get into the wrong hands are not going to care one way or another," Schneider said. "They're not going to report it anyway. There could be a situation where a law-abiding citizen who fails to report the gun is charged while the street hood who used the gun is never caught."
Meanwhile, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, who previously abolished the death penalty in Baltimore through prosecutorial discretion, wants to lessen penalties for illegal possession of a firearm by a felon or drug offender so she can get them to plead guilty and reduce the backlog of cases pending trial.

I'll bet that if I spoke to Jessamy, she'd give me some very practical reasons for her proposal -- difficulty of convicting in Baltimore, inadequate staffing at all levels of the criminal justice system, limited prison space, etc. And I might be sympathetic.

But it all boils down to one of the central reasons that government exists: to protect people from each other. If the government can't even do that, then the answer is obvious: Vote the politicians into higher office.