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Anti-crime office puts most funds in community groups

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The state crime-control office credited by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend with making Maryland safer directs the largest chunk of its federal grant dollars not to police agencies, but to community and church groups, schools and citizen patrols for programs designed to clean up troubled neighborhoods or discourage young people from turning to crime.

The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, under scrutiny by federal investigators examining whether federal funds were used for political purposes, also awards millions of dollars for crime-prevention research. A lesser but still significant amount is awarded directly to police and prosecutors for tools such as radio systems and crime lab equipment.

Much of the agency's work, however, is focused on distributing hundreds of relatively modest grants to finance community programs that include after-school activities, youth sports leagues, improved street lighting and, in one instance, an Easter egg hunt.

A review of about 1,200 federal grants awarded over the past two years shows that more than half went to youth diversion and neighborhood improvement efforts, with spending of more than $20.8 million.

Such awards could create potential good will for Townsend, who has overseen the office since its creation in 1995 and who has highlighted her crime-fighting credentials as she campaigns for governor. But Townsend and agency leaders say the grant dollars are buying effective crime prevention, not political support.

"What builds good will is effectiveness in making an impact that's positive in the community," Townsend said. She said individual grants are made on the basis of need rather than political considerations.

Stephen P. Amos, executive director of the state agency, said in a recent interview that the solutions to crime problems are generally not to be found at the state level.

"Whether it's a neighborhood watch or an after-school program, many of these programs are demonstrated to be cost-effective and they really do impact communities," he said.

The Maryland agency's emphasis on grass-roots prevention is part of a long-running national debate over how best to balance prevention and punishment when it comes to spending on crime programs.

One early skirmish after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 was over federal spending for "midnight basketball" programs -- a crime prevention strategy favored by the Clinton administration but derided by some conservative lawmakers as feel-good, pork-barrel spending.

By the end of the decade, the tenor of the debate had softened. After a series of deadly school shootings in the late 1990s, including the rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado, lawmakers were united in approving federal spending for "character education" programs for young people -- an idea that Townsend promotes now in her campaign commercials.

In Maryland, federal crime dollars have gone to support character education programs -- such as the "Rites of Passage" youth development program at New Jerusalem Deliverance Temple in Baltimore, which received $11,250 last year for its efforts to "build character, self esteem and unity."

Other youth programs include the Pocomoke City Police Department's $1,500 grant this summer to organize a summer street-hockey league. In Baltimore County, the Essex Church of God received $2,000 to cover the cost of youth activities such as "arts and crafts materials, prizes, field trips, food and beverages for community events" that included an Easter egg hunt, a community clean-up and a sports day.

National advocates and local police say such intensely local prevention programs have proven results.

In Baltimore County, police spokesman Bill Toohey credits after-school programs such as those run by the Police Athletic League with helping reduce juvenile crime in the county from 30.2 percent of all arrests for violent crime in 1995 to 21.4 percent last year.

These kinds of programs have the backing of the White House. Jennifer de Vallance, a spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the Bush administration encourages the practice of making small grants to neighborhood-based programs rather than trying to run anti-crime initiatives from large state bureaucracies.

"The bottom line is, we know that if we can prevent kids from using drugs by the time they're 18, they're much less likely to ever try drugs as an adult," de Vallance said.

Maryland's crime-control office, operating this year with a $95.7 million budget, has made a priority of mobilizing community groups and preventing juvenile crime -- goals also reflected in the agency's signature HotSpots program, funded largely through state grants.

But the agency also has helped fund a number of broader, more far-reaching initiatives that, in some instances, have brought national attention.

Researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park, funded in part by federal grants through the crime-control office, created the Drug Early Warning System in 1998 in the wake of a series of heroin overdose deaths in Carroll County.

"Out of that came the understanding that we really didn't know what was going on," Townsend said. At the time, she added, it was taking authorities up to two years to spot trends in drug activity.

Identifying trends

Under the program, the researchers identify trends in drug abuse and trafficking by drug-testing juvenile offenders; and monitoring emergency room admissions, school suspension statistics and calls to the state poison control center. The findings are sent by fax to law enforcement agencies, schools and public health agencies.

"This was almost real-time reporting," Townsend said.

In 2000, the group's research was credited with quickly detecting the surging popularity of the feel-good, club drug Ecstasy. The state responded with an educational campaign warning of the drug's dangers.

"They can rightfully say they picked up on that pretty early," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore health commissioner. He said his office more often uses the reports as an educational tool for the board of the Baltimore Substance Abuse System.

"It's helpful," he said. "It's not earth-shattering. It does sometimes serve as a warning."

The drug-warning research, funded through more than $1 million in grants to the University of Maryland, was part of more than $14.6 million that went to research and evaluation, conducted primarily by the College Park campus, between 2000 and this year. The grant records were among those subpoenaed by federal prosecutors in the current investigation.

During that same period, the office also awarded $11.2 million to juvenile justice, prison and prisoner re-entry programs; about $8 million in federal money to victim services and domestic violence programs; and more than $10.9 million that went directly to police agencies and prosecutors to help defray overtime costs, provide training, computers or other equipment.

Research a key element

Agency leaders say research is a key part of their mission, noting that government agencies for too long steered money to crime prevention programs without testing the results.

A 1997 University of Maryland study, ordered by Congress to determine the effectiveness of the more than $3 billion then granted each year by the U.S. Justice Department to help fight crime, found one key problem was that government leaders couldn't tell how a majority of funding had affected crime.

The researchers recommended at the time that 10 percent of anti-crime funds be set aside for scientific research.

"In some ways, we're like an incubator," Amos said. "We look at what's working or not working ... , and we'll make midcourse corrections."

Agency investments are practical as well as theoretical.

In the past year, the agency has made it a priority to ensure that police, fire, transportation and other agencies can effectively communicate in emergencies -- a program that became apparent after the Sept. 11 terror attacks last year, when Maryland fire units responding to the Pentagon found they could not communicate by radio with counterparts from Northern Virginia or Washington.

Townsend moved to put Maryland's efforts to improve emergency communications on a fast track, bringing in public safety telecommunications expert John D. Cohen.

"After 9/11, the stakes were higher, so we put greater emphasis on it," Townsend said.

Cohen said state officials have installed three radio "patching" systems that will cover Central Maryland. He said the most populated areas could have a permanent system in place by the end of the year, but for now a mobile unit can link agencies in some emergencies. "We wanted to create an infrastructure that didn't just stand there in mothballs, waiting for the next terrorist activity," he said.

Cohen was paid through a research grant to the University of Maryland, College Park. Those records have been subpoenaed.

Townsend said she is pleased with the progress the state has made in a year. Federal officials say Maryland is on track to be the second state -- after Colorado -- with a statewide communications system linking public safety agencies operating on different radio frequencies.

Four priorities

The lieutenant governor said she approved the broad policy goals of the agency but does not get involved in awarding individual grants. The four priorities she has set, Townsend said, are targeting offenders with a high risk of repeated crimes, aiding communities with high crime rates, assisting victims of crimes and preventing juvenile violence.

Agency officials said that among the categories, the greatest amount is spent on programs for high-risk offenders.

If elected governor, Townsend said she would shift the office's emphasis to other priorities, including homeland security, crime-fighting technology and drug treatment. She also predicted a significant expansion of after-school initiatives.

Townsend said the programs would not be politically beneficial unless they get results.

"When we show some evidence of helping communities fight crime, those should redound to the benefit of those who set up those kinds of programs," she said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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