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Looking at Campaign 2000, crime seems to have become the third rail of presidential politics. And that’s a bit surprising. Crime is way down and has been for a while. But planks of the 2000 Democratic and Republican party platforms are calling for stricter penalties for juveniles, more federalization of state crimes and the expansion of the death penalty — despite recent concerns about wrongful conviction and racial discrimination. Maintaining a hard line is the only way to keep the crime rate down, argue those who explained the crime positions of Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush. But such a strategy may no longer be effective, say some critics. “We have the luxury of a declining crime rate, so we’re not in the crisis we were in back in 1989, at the height of the crack epidemic,” says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based reform group. The low crime rate “gives us an opportunity to plan for the future.” His group plans to release a study on Sept. 28 showing that “the benefits of incarceration have been vastly overstated” in states that have radically increased their prison populations, says Mauer. Reforms suggested by critics of the platforms include a phaseout of mandatory minimum sentences and greater sentencing latitude for judges, to take pressure off overburdened prison systems. Some suggest stepped-up training and drug treatment for prisoners as a bulwark against recidivism. PUNISHMENT, NO REHAB Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor at the University of Southern California Law School in Los Angeles, says that “three strikes” laws and tough parole requirements are also contributing to the high prison population, now hovering at 2 million, while programs meant to prepare prisoners to rejoin society have withered. That’s a serious concern, says Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and director of the National Consortium on Violence Research, because 25 percent of those now jailed will be released in the next several years. Between 1993 and 1999, murders in the United States dropped by almost one-third. Other violent crime declined by 34 percent, to its lowest point in three decades, according to an Aug. 27 report by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. During the same six years, property crimes dropped by 38 percent. But for any politician seeking to be progressive on crime policy, there still looms the specter of Willie Horton. So says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan campaign monitoring group. He contends that the furloughed Massachusetts felon who went on to commit more crimes and ruin the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis still strikes fear in the hearts of political operatives. “I don’t think anybody recently has failed to get elected by being too tough on crime,” says Lichter. “The Republicans based their resurgence in part on looking tough on crime, and the Democrats have decided that they’re not going to get out-toughed.” A Gore campaign official who requested anonymity admits that the Democrats “have not ruled out progressive programs” but says that the “political mechanics of the crime issue are complex.” The Democrats use strikingly conservative language in their platform, “Prosperity, Progress and Peace,” pledging not “to go back to the old approach which was tough on causes of crime, but not tough enough on crime itself.” The platform calls for hiring more police officers, federal “gun prosecutors” and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, and 10,000 more local prosecutors, to “fight gun crime.” It seeks to increase sentences for sex offenses and “serious and violent crime,” as well as for crimes against the elderly. “Al Gore has advocated strong action to fight juvenile crime, banning violent teenagers from gun possession for life and breaking up street gangs,” says campaign spokesman Dagoberto Vega. Gore is also seeking to set himself apart from President Clinton by endorsing a victims’ rights amendment to the Constitution, making its passage next year more likely. The 2000 Republican Party platform, Renewing America’s Purpose Together, calls for “no-frills” prisons with work requirements, and increased penalties for drug offenses, particularly those involving methamphetamine and Ecstasy. It also calls for two more seats on the U.S. Sentencing Commission for victims of violent crime and easier use of prior convictions in sex-crime trials. Criminologists say that the juvenile justice issue will be especially important in the next administration, given that the U.S. Census Bureau says that 10 million American males between ages 15 and 19 will soon be entering their prime crime-committing years. A Bush spokesman says that juvenile justice is a large part of the candidate’s crime policy. “It’s important that juvenile crime be addressed in two ways,” says spokesman Ray Sullivan. “Use progressive sanctions so that they are punished more severely for repeat and serious crime, and focus on education by funding after-school programs.” But the GOP platform goes further, seeking to open juvenile proceedings and case records and to allow victim testimony. Both platforms are taking the wrong approach, says Mauer. On juvenile justice, “the platforms are particularly ignorant,” he says. “Juveniles are generally less influenced by tough-sounding penalties.” Lichter says the candidates are just responding to the public perception that, despite the numbers, violent crime is everywhere. “Media coverage of crime is up, particularly homicides,” he says. “By the end of the 1990s, there were five times as many network news stories [on crime] as there were” in the 1980s. “The public’s perception of safety and of the crime rate hasn’t changed, despite the statistics showing the lower crime rate,” says Chemerinsky. “People still feel threatened.” RECOMMENDED REFORMS Blumstein recommends that mandatory minimum sentences be allowed to “sunset” and that federal and state parole and probation systems return to a less strict structure. “The parole system, which used to be the softest on crime, has become a major source of input in the prison system through largely technical violations,” he says. “Political rhetoric on crime comes very cheap, and the consequences can be very expensive,” says Blumstein, who worries that more tough proposals will surface in the upcoming presidential debates. “A political campaign is a terrible place to make crime policy.”

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