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Order: the real infrastructure issue.

Despite his State of the Union speech rhetoric, in which he promised "boot camps for first-time, non-violent offenders ... [and] ... more space for the hardened criminals in jail," President Clinton has now sent a disheartening signal to a crime-ravaged nation. It is a signal that his "putting people first" theme really may mean putting them first in harm's way. In fact, Mr. Clinton's budget proposes $331 million in cuts in prison construction by 1998, not "more space" as he promised.

These proposed cuts are especially troubling given what Mr. Clinton knows to be the mood of most Americans. As he walked up and down Georgia Avenue on his first post-election visit to Washington, D.C., the most urgent plea he heard from those who called out to him was "Stop the crime." Not "Give us health care" and not even "Give us jobs" --it was "Stop the crime."

Georgia Avenue, like so many neighborhoods in the President's new home city, is ravaged by crime. The entrepreneurial spirit alive in its merchants may be strong. But the spirit alone is not enough; free markets cannot thrive when buyers and sellers are daily victims of domestic terror, and the merchants and neighbors of Georgia Avenue know this as surely as they recognize the snap of a gun or the wail of a siren.

During the campaign, Mr. Clinton spoke often about America's "crumbling infrastructure;" about the need for "public works" projects to rebuild roads and bridges, hospitals, schools, and neighborhoods.

But the best schools are of little value to the child who can't concentrate for fear of the gangs. The best roads are rivers of death, and not rivers of commerce, when drive-by shooters control the streets, car-jackers drag innocent women to their death, murdering drunks go unpunished, or random snipers rain fire on anything that moves. The resources of the best hospitals and doctors are squandered when they must be spent daily repairing the wounds caused by criminal predators. The best neighborhoods soon deteriorate to ruin when thugs are allowed to roam the streets with virtual impunity. Yet this is precisely what is happening across America as the government abdicates its most fundamental responsibility to protect life, liberty, and property--in short, to ensure the constitutional promise of domestic tranquility.

The National Institute of justice reported not too long ago that five out of six twelve-year-olds will be the victim of a violent crime in their lifetime. Are we too numbed to it all not to recognize the human horror and the economic devastation which this otherwise cold statistic represents?

Citizens must demand that the President, the Congress, our governors, and our state legislators make domestic defense--the control of crime and the rebuilding of the infrastructure of order --an urgent national and state priority.

This "infrastructure of order" is the bedrock on which all else rests. Inadequate crime control and "soft-headed" approaches to punishment send the wrong signals to our children, especially to those with the least material and spiritual resources. If crime pays, as it obviously does in many parts of this country, too many of our young people will opt out of productive pursuits. With the expected punishment for an FBI index crime now down to eight days according to Dr. Morgan Reynolds of the National Center for Policy Analysis, it is not surprising that we find so many young Americans satisfying their desires by simply taking the object of those desires.

More mundane but equally important is the fact that the disorder in our society impedes the commerce of this still immensely productive nation. It increases costs and raises the price of everything we produce. Our standard of living could be even higher if we could control our crime problem.

Mr. Clinton spoke often during the campaign about what we owe our children. Whatever else may be said, we surely owe them safe streets and neighborhoods, a world in which to grow up where fear of violent crime is not their most constant companion.

Luckily for the President and his new Attorney General, there is a blueprint for action left as a bipartisan and thoroughly solid legacy by the preceding Attorney General, William Barr. "Combatting Violent Crime: 24 Recommendations to Strengthen Criminal Justice" calls for dramatic change in state criminal justice policy--a theme which will doubtless find a warm reception in the new White House. Yet for all their drama, the twenty-four recommendations are anchored in the bedrock of common sense and in the shared experiences of generations of Americans who have watched their lovely country being ravaged by criminal predators.

The report calls on the states to target violent and habitual criminals, both adults and juveniles, and to provide enough prison capacity to keep them locked up. When one considers that in Texas, for example, 30 percent of the aggravated first-time murderers receive probation, as do 50 percent of the aggravated first-time rapists; when one considers that the median sentence for those who are imprisoned for aggravated murder in Texas is six-and-a-half years, and for aggravated rape three-and-a-half years; when one considers the cost in dollars and suffering exacted from victims by the soaring increases in violent crime--can one ask for a better government investment?


When President Clinton calls for more public works projects, more investment in "infrastructure," new prison construction ought to figure prominently in those plans. These "public works" would give states the ability to fulfill the fundamental promise of the social contract. At present, however, the President appears to be headed in exactly the wrong direction.

While there will be those familiar liberal voices who tell him that punishment and prisons don't work, there is mounting evidence around the country that, indeed, getting tough does work. Prison incarceration for violent and habitual criminals will bring down crime rates through both their incapacitation and deterrence effects. Prisons will avert hundreds of thousands of new victimizations and the enormous cost of human suffering attendant upon them. All of the serious research in this area suggests that prisons more than pay for themselves.

A simple yet profound demonstration from our recent history makes the point that getting tough works. In the 1980s, crime rose by an average of 7 percent in the ten states that had either decreases or the smallest increases in their imprisonment rates; it fell by an average of 12 percent in those ten states with the largest increases in their imprisonment rates.

And this relationship between crime and punishment is not restricted to the last decade. Over the past three decades the rate of serious crime in the U.S. has tended to move up as we imprisoned proportionately fewer offenders and down when we imprisoned proportionately more offenders. Consider that in 1960 we had 18 criminals incarcerated for every 100 serious crimes in the U.S., and there were 664 such serious crimes per 100,000 people. By 1980, this rate had fallen to 6 per 100 serious crimes, and the serious crime rate had increased to 2,250 per 100,000 people. The climb back has been tough, but we managed by 1990 to raise this rate to 16 per 100 serious crimes and the serious crime rate fell to less than 2,000 per 100,000 people. One lesson we have learned is that while getting tough still works, reestablishing order once it has been undermined by an excessively permissive society is a longer and more arduous undertaking.

As we observed in Somalia, roads and bridges are of little value when gangsters are locked in uncontrolled battle for turf. The erosion of justice, domestic tranquility, and common defense in this country is the most insidious kind of decay in our infrastructure. Surely if we summoned the will and found the way to triumph over the totalitarian threat outside our borders, we can find the will and the way to triumph over the enemy within. Common-sense public policies--such as establishing "truth-in-sentencing" by repealing the liberal early release programs now operating in most states, and by insisting upon long mandatory prison terms for violent and habitual criminals, crackdowns on violent crime committed by juveniles, and constitutional rights for victims of crime--will lead to just such a triumph.

President Clinton would be well advised to heed the calls from Georgia Avenue, representing as they do the call of America: Build prisons and stop the crime!
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Author:Block, Michael; Twist, Steve
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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