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'New Democrats' Seem Like 'Old Republicans' on Crime

March 06, 1994|James A. Baker III | James A. Baker III served as secretary of state and Treasury secretary

WASHINGTON — When I ran for attorney general of Texas in 1978, I asked Texans about the then-current wave of violent crime. My TV spots ended with the tag line: "Had enough?"

Since then, unfortunately, the number of violent crimes has nearly doubled. Statistics show four out of five Americans will be victims of violent crime at least once in their lives. According to the FBI, a violent crime occurred once every 22 seconds last year. That means in the approximate time it takes to read this paragraph, another innocent American became a victim of violent crime. All Americans have had more than enough.

Even President Bill Clinton, "New Democrat," is sounding an awful lot like an "Old Republican" when it comes to crime: more police, longer sentences, more prisons. His call is echoed by Senate Democrats. Only the "Old Democrats" of the House stand between the American people and the tough anti-crime legislation they demand. Like the North American Free Trade Agreement last year, a meaningful crime bill in 1994 may depend on a center-right coalition of House Republicans and moderate Democrats.

Why this emerging consensus on crime? The answer is simple. Public anger about crime, on simmer for all these decades, is boiling over.

When 68 innocent Bosnians were killed by a savage mortar attack on a Sarajevo market, world opinion was aghast. Yet each day, on average, roughly the same number of Americans are murdered.

Today's clamor about crime transcends the individual outrages that capture our horrified imaginations. The murder of Polly Klaas, the killing of Michael Jordan's father or the slaughter of commuters on the Long Island Railroad are symptoms of a broader pathology that has beset our society.

Violent crime has become an American childhood disease. Violence among American youth may be the most discouraging phenomenon of contemporary society. Persons under the age of 21 committed one-third of all murders in 1990. Young people are also increasingly victims of violent crime. Metal detectors at urban high schools symbolize the extent that survival has become the major rite of passage for many adolescents.

Americans understand there is something wrong--dreadfully wrong--with a society in which a murder occurs every 22 minutes, a rape every 5 minutes and a robbery every 47 seconds.

So vociferous has been the public outcry about crime, in fact, that even liberals have begun, however belatedly, to respond. Last November, for example, Senate Democrats joined Republicans in passing, 95-4, a tough anti-crime bill. A political sea-change is under way. Like the President, many moderate Democrats are talking tough on crime. Some have shifted positions because they realize the terrible damage done by permissive social policies--especially to the disadvantaged communities many Democrats represent.

The "new" consensus sounds uncannily like GOP crime planks of the past 30 years. For the first time in decades, the word "values" can be spoken in polite Democratic company. Individual responsibility, behavioral restraint and respect for the community have been rediscovered for what they have always been: the prerequisites to any civil society. The President, for one, can hardly step to a podium without evoking them.

The policy outlines of this new consensus on crime can be found in the bipartisan $22.3 billion, five-year Senate bill passed last fall.

Key provisions of the bill, which builds on earlier legislation by the Reagan and Bush Administrations, include:

* Putting more police on the streets. The Senate bill calls for the federal government to help fund up to 100,000 new law-enforcement officers. In recent decades, the number of police has barely kept up with overall population growth, much less the nearly fourfold increase in violent crime since 1960.

* Mandating tougher sentences and parole provisions. Violent offenders serve, on average, only 37% of their sentences. At any given time, 75% of convicted criminals--about 3 million--are on probation or parole. Not surprisingly, many return to violent crime.

The Senate crime bill tightens federal sentences and includes the imposition of a mandatory life sentence without parole for repeat violent offenders--the now famous (and long-overdue) "three strikes and you're out." The Senate bill seeks to stop, or at least slow, the notorious revolving door of violent crime.

* Building more prisons. Being serious about tougher sentences means being serious about more prisons. Keeping violent offenders in jail is expensive. It pales, however, in comparison with the cost of letting criminals go free. Crime costs the U.S. economy, directly and indirectly, more than $650 billion a year. This puts the Senate's call for a modest $3 billion for 10 regional prisons in perspective.

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