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The great crime-bill show of '91.

Willie Horton. Willie Horton. Willie Horton. Have a friend shout those words at you a few hundred times, and then you may have some sense of what the average Democratic member of Congress hears when politics turns toward the subject of crime. It's one of those issues-a wedge issue, the Republicans gleefully call it-that drive Democrats mad. It's their own fault, since the party has not yet figured out how to respond effectively to the bloodlust-driven offerings of its rivals. So it was not shocking that once President Bush finished vanquishing Iraq (and cowing the Democrats), he demonstrated that he was not ignoring domestic issues by unveiling another anticrime package and initiating what's become an annual ritual of rhetorical silliness: the crime-bill debate.

The theme of the Bush package, once again, is punishment. As he did last year, Bush proposes expanding the federal death penalty, limiting death-row appeals and allowing prosecutors to use illegally obtained evidence in court. The Democrats counter: yes, but ... After Bush unveiled his legislation, Senator Joseph Biden, chair of the Judiciary Committee, took to the Senate floor supposedly to criticize the Bush plan. He did so by seconding the call for more capital punishment, for fewer death-penalty appeals and for admitting tainted evidence. His own anticrime bill, Biden boasted, boosts the number of federal capital offenses to forty-four, "more than what the President is proposing." His "but" is composed of criticism of Bush for opposing an assault-rifle ban and for doing nothing to increase the number of cops. Biden's alternative package authorizes funds for thousands of new police officers, F.B.I. agents and other law-enforcement officials.

Biden is trying to out-G.O.P. the G.O.P. He has thrown some decent measures into the mix, such as the Violence Against Women Act (a collection of measures to help prevent rape and toughen punishment for rapists) and the Racial Justice Act (which would allow capital offenders to use statistics to demonstrate that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory fashion). Still, he is arguing on his opponents' terms, and Republicans, who are more adept at demagogy, win maintain a natural advantage as long as the emotional issue of crime is discussed predominantly in terms of revenge and enforcement.

Last year, the crime bill collapsed after both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed their own versions. In conference, Republican senators would not accept the racial justice act included in the House bill, House Democrats objected to provisions that limited death-row appeals and House members of both parties refused to accept a Senate-passed ban on the production and sale of semiautomatic weapons. The same knotty disputes are likely to dominate again this year and push aside consideration of any comprehensive anticrime strategy.

Biden's attempt to plagiarize much of Bush's rap perpetuates the grand charade of anticrime policy: that killing criminals and uncuffing police will reduce street crime. The annual crime debate is a large exercise in avoidance. The causes of crime is a taboo subject. Politicians dare not raise it, for they risk being labeled wimps and pamperers of murderers, rapists, thieves and drug pushers. Instead, the discourse concentrates on such controversies as whether capital offenders who are mentally retarded should be killed, as if that would lower the crime rate.

Conspicuous by its absence is any real examination of crime prevention. Biden does present gun control and more cops as preventive measures. Conservatives claim that tough enforcement and sanctions deter malefactors, and they're happy to stick stiff penalties to gun-toting criminals (rather than limit access to guns). But talk of preventing crime at its origins is practically nowhere to be found on Capitol Hill.

At the recent Senate confirmation hearing of drug czar Robert Martinez, both the unwillingness of the political class to consider the roots of crime and the Administration's antipathy to before-the-crime prevention were on clear display. Throughout Martinez's daylong testimony, not a word was breathed about the reasons people abuse drugs and thus engage in and support criminal activity. Understanding the motives of drug abusers might be of some use to a drug czar, but causation is out-even for aggressive liberals like Senators Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum, who beat up on Martinez for other reasons. These two would only go so far as to note the connection between social policy and crime in urging more money for drug treatment programs. In the Senate, Kennedy has repeatedly criticized Bush's national drug policy for spending more on enforcement and interdiction than on treatment and education. (Kennedy and a few others on the Hill are promoting legislation to increase drug rehab programs in prisons; they are quite rightly championing such proposals as anticrime measures.) Confronted by Kennedy, Martinez obligingly maintained that he favored more funding for treatment. But that claim does not square with his performance as Governor of drug-besieged Florida from 1987 to 1991; he poured money into enforcement but kept funding for treatment at a relatively low level.

Martinez personifies the Bush approach to crime. The President has hailed him for signing 130 death warrants and implementing get-tough antidrug policies while Governor. Martinez sought and obtained from the state legislature a mandatory minimum three-year penalty for drug possession under certain circumstances. Naturally, this led to an enormous increase in the number of drug offenders sent to Florida's already overcrowded prisons. In the same period, not coincidentally, the state was forced to launch the nation's most ambitious early release program in order to make room for the incoming convicts. The result: During the Martinez years, the average murder sentence in Florida decreased by 40 percent and recidivism increased. More in, more out, more crime.

During the hearing, Martinez found himself roped in by the White House's enmity toward gun control. In Florida he did support the establishment of a waiting period for purchasers of certain guns-one of the mildest gun-control reforms-but he testified that he opposes a federal law creating the same. Asked about the prospect that would-be gun buyers might cross state lines to obtain weapons, he replied that there was no reason to worry since "the bulk of the people will buy their weapon, you know, in their own neighborhood:' He also expressed doubt that banning assault weapons would reduce violent crime. Criminals, he explained, would turn to other weapons such as "a handgun, a knife, some blunt weapon." Martinez went on to compare assault weapons to pesticides: "We have had as a people a history that when something is believed to be injurious, whether we are talking chemicals or whatever else, often instead of banning, we highly regulate and place penalties for use of that chemical or instrument." And though he has supported expanded drug testing-including tests for new Florida citizens who apply for certain kinds of driver's licenses-he rejected the suggestion that gun buyers be tested. He explained that it was only natural that newcomers be tested since "there is little that is known about the individual." Martinez's perspective on drugs and crime is severely limited.

The Democrats might be able to score political points with their advocacy of certain gun-control measures and drug rehab in prisons (as a way of decreasing the number of addict-thugs on the streets). These programs, however, represent only a small dose of prevention. It may sound like do-good, liberal dogma, but anticrime policy should aim at the causes of crime: poverty, a failing education system, joblessness, social decay and alienation. Since the 1960s-especially during the Reagan years-conservatives have ridiculed and scorned such a liberal attitude. And they triumphed. When was the last time you heard a major political leader in Washington talk about conditions in the inner cities and tie them to crime? The political culture allows little space for such talk, and the Democrats, as a party, have done nothing to buck the tide.

One does not have to be a leftist ideologue to lament the narrowness of the crime debate. Late last year the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation-funded in part by a host of major corporations-released a report that called for a massive "reconstruction of urban life" as the way to reduce crime. The foundation, which is a private-sector re-creation of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, did not shy away from estimating a price tag: $10 billion each year for this decade. This would cover new funds for social programs carefully tailored for so-called high-risk children. The money would support preschool education for all eligible children (that's nearly $5 billion in itself), various job-training programs and more funds (at least $2 billion per year) for drug treatment and counseling. The foundation notes that its $10 billion wish list does not include funds for better housing and schools, which are essential parts of its crime reduction plan. Invest in cities and kids, the report said, and the return will be a better society and less crime.

Does Joe Biden have the guts to speak so plainly about crime? If the goal truly is to decrease crime, programs that educate, house and employ are just as crucial as effective sentencing, enforcement and rehabilitation measures. But they need to be advocated as such, and with the same force that Republican Senator Strom Thurmond applies to his crusade to execute retarded criminals. And they must be sold to a public that is enraged and frightened by crime and skeptical of government. Even before that pitch is made, a politician must admit an unpretty truth: The federal government, in the immediate sense, cannot do a lot to decrease street crime. Demagogues can flail their arms, fry (or gas or poison) more criminals and promote prosecution of those few cases that heretofore were jeopardized by police misconduct. Congress and the White House, however, can do the most good by forgoing instant gratification and tackling long-term matters that affect the social fabric. But few, if any, politicians in Washington are tough enough to support that common-sense message and be heard above the cries of the tough-guy executioners.
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Title Annotation:Congressional Follies
Author:Corn, David
Publication:The Nation
Date:Apr 29, 1991
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