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State, Local Politics No Match for Urban Crisis of Crime and Drugs : Government: The Reagan legacy is to shift the burden of dealing with the country's most vexing problems to those least capable of managing them.

April 15, 1990|Harry S. Ashmore | Harry S. Ashmore is the author of a biography of Robert Maynard Hutchins, "Unseasonable Truths" (Little, Brown).

SANTA BARBARA — Fifty years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded that in order to advance his New Deal program he would have to purge recalcitrant Southern senators from the Democratic Party. South Carolina's Ellison Durant Smith, standing for his sixth term, was at the top of his list.

Not surprisingly, given the South's one-party politics, "Cotton Ed" and the other Dixiecrats handily survived by appealing to racism, states' rights and economic self-interest. It is, however, unsettling, after half a century of sweeping economic, social and demographic changes, to see Cotton Ed's platform endorsed, or at least accepted, by a considerable majority of Americans in three successive presidential elections.

Too many Americans, for example, believe that volunteer agencies can provide points of light sufficient to relieve the gloom of the inner cities. And that a rising tide of middle-class affluence will automatically lift a third generation of juvenile delinquents, socially incapacitated by the absence of effective family and community support. George Bush used to call that voodoo economics.

Congress, confined by the fiscal straitjacket left by President Ronald Reagan's budget deficits and acutely aware of election returns, is in no position to restore curtailed social programs or devise new ones. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is only a heartbeat away from the anti-affirmative-action majority Reagan sought and Bush is likely to achieve.

Thus the burden of dealing with the crime-ridden urban slums has been transferred to state and local governments--and every lesson to be drawn from history demonstrates that they have neither the will nor the capacity to handle social problems rooted in poverty compounded by race and class. In fact, as the current gubernatorial campaign in California bears witness, it is no longer possible even to get these pressing matters on the political agenda.

Popular concern over the rising crime rate enabled the spin doctors who shaped the Republican presidential campaigns to use a largely rhetorical war on drugs to offset the emotional appeal the war on poverty once had. In California, the formula has made Gov. George Deukmejian, a natural-born apostle of law and order, imperviously popular. As did Bush, he accompanied his promise to beef up the criminal justice system with a pledge not to raise taxes.

This has worked so well that the two leading Democratic candidates have been reduced to trying to outdo each other with televised pledges to send more prisoners to the gas chamber.

It is hard to believe that such experienced public officials as Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein--or, for that matter, the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. Pete Wilson--do not recognize that this "off-with-their-heads" approach is no more than an expedient diversion from the real problems posed by crime and drugs.

But politicians seem unable to resist taking a firm stand on issues where there is no visible opposition. The last vestige of popular support for drug use disappeared with the hippies. No one has any sympathy for the crack dealers whose traffic promotes violent crime. Nor does anyone doubt that effective policing is required to make city streets safer to walk. These are political givens. But so should be the evident futility of relying on the criminal justice system to deal with crime after the fact, while curtailing the social programs that constitute the only effective preventive.

There is abundant evidence that this one-sided approach is destroying the effectiveness of the measures central to the purported war on crime. In California, after reinstatement of the death sentence and passage of laws requiring more severe penalties for lesser crimes, statistics compiled by the State Bar portray a judicial system near the verge of collapse:

From 1981 to 1988, drug cases in Los Angeles more than doubled; last year the violent crime rate rose by 12%; between 1978 and 1986, statewide criminal-case filings rose by 114%; there are now about 90,000 inmates in California prisons, up from 25,000 in 1980; nearly two-thirds of the prisoners released on parole in 1986 were back in prison within two years.

Newspapers, and in its scattershot fashion, television, flesh out these figures with reports of random violence outside the ghettoes, where juvenile street gangs funded by drug money have taken over neighborhoods. On the Op-Ed pages, judges, law-enforcement officials, sociologists, clergymen and inner-city activists deplore the failure to provide education, medical treatment and increased economic opportunity that could succor those struggling to free themselves from the stultifying ghetto environment.

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