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Everyone Is Tough on Crime--But Avoids the Real Issues

March 06, 1994|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

The fact that crime is the No. 1 issue in American politics virtually guarantees nothing significant will be done to make the streets safer. The people are afraid of the criminals, and the politicians are afraid of the people. So the politicians will vie to talk toughest, good slogans will take the place of good policy and bad ideas will be enacted into law. The politics of crime leaves no room for a real discussion of policy, particularly when so few leaders have the guts to be honest about crime.

Fear of crime is real and growing. It is fueled not only by local TV stations in search of ratings, and local politicians in search of reelection, but also by the realities of daily life. While it is true, as criminologists point out, that the overall crime rate decreased last year, the level of violence is increasing. A decade ago, burglars who broke into your home just wanted your silver and TV; today, they're armed, and don't give a damn about killing you. The fear of crime is with us wherever we go.

It is also true that the system is failing in fundamental respects. In California, killers, on average, serve fewer than eight years in prison--higher than in many states. But the criminal-justice system is a revolving door--with too few criminals caught in the first instance, too few of them prosecuted and convicted, and too few sentenced to real punishment.

But "three strikes and you're out"--this year's answer to the crime problem--won't solve this. Neither will the death penalty, or boot camps for first offenders, or massive prison construction--other answers being offered by politicians.

The political debate on crime is not about cutting crime: It's about politics. And most politicians are convinced the public isn't capable of understanding that slogans aren't solutions, let alone that prevention is ultimately more important than punishment. So politicians give us what they think we want--tough talk--leaving no room for discussions about policy that we so desperately need.

The popularity of the "three strikes" idea tells as much about what's wrong with the political system as it does about the failings of the criminal-justice system. Violent criminals should do hard time--and we shouldn't have to wait until their third conviction for real punishment. Locking up 20-year-old robbers makes sense; but keeping them there when they're 50, and their criminal careers long over, won't make streets safer. Besides, some "three strikes" proposals are so badly drafted that you could be sentenced to life for bouncing checks.

People can be excused for their embrace of "three strikes and you're out": It's a bad idea whose time has come, the outgrowth of legitimate frustration about a system that doesn't work and a society that is increasingly violent. The politicians, who know better and bear some of the responsibility, should be ashamed of themselves. But they're not.

Last week, with great fanfare, Vice President Al Gore introduced the Administration's version of "three strikes," saying that it would make a "huge dent" in crime. A "huge dent?" The Administration's figures suggest the proposal would apply to, at most, 200 to 300 offenders--hardly a "huge dent" in the crime rate of any large city, let alone the country.

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, politicians from both sides of the aisle are trampling each other in their rush to support any number of versions of a state "three strikes" measure--notwithstanding a Department of Corrections report forecasting costs of $21 billion in prison construction and $5.7 billion annually to run the new prisons.

But "three strikes" isn't really about controlling crime, at least in the political context. It's about values and toughness--and getting elected. The President's pollster admitted as much last month, describing it as a question of values. Like the death penalty and Willie Horton, "three strikes" is a measure of how tough you are. And no Democrat running for any major office, or trying to hold onto one, wants to fail the toughness test.

But when do we get to talk about controlling crime? The best reason to be for the death penalty is because some people deserve it--not because it will stop random murders. The Willie Hortons of the world shouldn't be furloughed, but that won't cut crime significantly, either. When do we get to move beyond good politics, to even talking about what might be good policy?

The day after he announced his resignation as deputy attorney general, Philip B. Heymann, a distinguished criminal-law professor and former head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said many of the toughest provisions of the crime bill making its way through Congress are wasteful and doomed to failure. "Politics," he said, "have overwhelmed reason."

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