• U.S.

The Political Interest Frying Them Isn’t the Answer

5 minute read
Michael Kramer

Never get tarred as soft on crime. Bill Clinton learned that lesson late, but he learned it well. After regaining Arkansas’ governorship in 1982, which he had lost in 1980 to a law-and-order rival, Clinton set 70 execution dates for 26 prisoners over 10 years; three were actually put to death. To reaffirm his mettle as he ran for the White House, Clinton rushed home from New Hampshire to deny a condemned murderer’s clemency plea. The brain-damaged killer barely knew his own identity, let alone the fate that awaited him (at his last meal, he saved the pecan pie to eat later), but Clinton proceeded without apparent qualms. “I can be nicked on a lot,” he said afterward, “but no one can say I’m soft on crime.”

What worked for the candidate is doing even better for the President. The muscular, get-tough themes that have become a staple of Clinton’s rhetoric have won the public’s blessing. Last week, for the first time, the majority of people surveyed in two national polls said Democrats are better able than Republicans to “handle crime problems.”

Time, then, to deliver. A crime bill is struggling through Congress. While Clinton avoided involvement during its drafting, he is now complaining about the delay in its passage. Far worse, he is supporting its most emotionally appealing proposals instead of seeking to shore up the single measure that has been proved to work: more cops on the beat. Last week, for example, Vice President Al Gore offered the Administration’s version of a “three strikes and you’re out” scheme that modifies the crime bill’s harsh life-imprisonment language only slightly by narrowing the list of applicable felonies. Any three-strikes proposal, however, will affect only several hundred federal inmates each year. “We hope the states follow suit,” says a Clinton aide, an inefficient course that could bankrupt those that do. In California, a three- strikes provision would double the incarcerated population, require 20 new prisons and swell the current $2.8 billion corrections-department budget by about $2 billion. “We can’t afford it,” says John Vasconcellos, chairman of the state assembly’s Ways and Means committee. “There would be no California left, except for the police and prison state.”

As Gore claimed dubiously that a three-strikes law would make a “huge dent in violent crime,” Clinton endorsed expanding the death penalty to 52 federal offenses, including the attempted assassination of the President; today, only a drug-related killing is a capital crime. Those on the front lines are appalled. “I know of no law-enforcement professional who believes the ((new)) death-penalty provisions would affect public safety in the slightest,” says Robert Morgenthau, Manhattan’s respected district attorney. Equally troublesome, declared Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, the death penalty “remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistake.” According to a 1987 Stanford University survey, at least 23 Americans have been wrongly executed in the 20th century. Just since 1973 an additional 48 have been freed from death row when evidence of their innocence surfaced before their sentences were carried out. Too, says Blackmun, the “virus of racism” pervades the penalty’s application. Studies confirmed by the General Accounting Office in 1990 report that blacks who kill whites are sentenced to death at “nearly 22 times the rate of blacks who kill blacks and more than seven times the rate of whites who kill blacks.” Thus, despite the many supposed safeguards, what matters most is still who you are, who you kill and who your lawyer is — a reality made worse as the Supreme Court repeatedly restricts the convicted killers’ rights of appeal.

Serious crime fighting would, above all, emphasize the certainty of capture. “Criminals calculate the odds of apprehension and rightly conclude that crime pays,” says Adam Walinsky, the New York lawyer responsible for the crime bill’s commendable police-corps proposal, which would award college scholarships in exchange for four years of law-enforcement work. “As recently as a decade ago, arrest rates for homicide exceeded 95%, even in the big cities. It’s now down to 50%. The robbery arrest rate is down to 24%; it’s 13% for burglaries.” Why? Well, for one thing, there are currently 3.3 violent crimes committed for every police officer, exactly opposite the ratio of 25 years ago. “Until you invert that balance,” says Walinsky, “you can forget about it. Until you catch ’em, you can’t even think about what to do with ’em.”

The solution? Get more cops, which is exactly what the crime bill proposes: almost $9 billion would be allocated to help localities hire an additional 100,000 officers over five years. But after that money runs out, financially strapped communities may be forced to fire their new cops. What’s needed, then, is a rejiggering. The crime bill’s many pork-barrel provisions, like the one that would combat the introduction of “nonindigenous plant and animal species” into Hawaii, should be junked. Every available dollar should go for more cops — forever.

Those like Al Gore, who says “we’re searching for what works,” should stop searching and work to beef up the one remedy proved to make a difference. If, on the other hand, toughness is defined by proliferating three-strikes laws, or by executing a few more of the worst among us, then, as the recently resigned Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann says, politics will continue to “overwhelm reason,” and we’ll be back “searching for what works” after the next election.

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