Pubdate: Mon, 26 Jul 1999
Date: 07/26/1999
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Author: Eric E. Sterling
Note: Mr. Sterling's letter responds to Tribune editorial at

The Tribune's recent editorial (July 20) about declining crime rates -
that ``politics should not get in the way of effective crime
fighting'' - is true but wishful thinking.

Not only is it true that ``criminals don't care about the political
parties of their victims,'' as noted, but criminals don't care about
politics generally. Criminals don't have political action committees
and don't raise money to defeat anti-crime candidates and rarely vote.

One consequence of this fact is that acting and talking ``tough'' on
crime is the safest political position any elected official can take.
Consider that taking a position on almost every other matter of public
policy - health care, gun control, tax cuts, Kosovo, water policy in
the Everglades, bank regulation, highway construction - is going to
alienate some significant or wealthy portion of the electorate.

This fact has a powerful effect on the behavior of members of Congress: They
waffle or obfuscate on the tough issues and talk loudly about ``cracking
down'' and ``getting tough'' on criminals.

When you are running for re-election, the only laws that are important
are the ones you recently voted for, and that creates enormous
pressure to create new crimes and to raise sentences. The fact is
competitive partisan politics is driving American anti-crime policy.
This means an emphasis on toughness and not crime prevention. If crime
rates were rising instead of falling, politicians would be equally if
not more happy - then they would have a ``growing problem,'' more
fear, and greater attention to their ``get tough'' rhetoric.

In general, the police don't cause crime and they don't stop it.
Substantially reducing the incidence of crime is a truly complex,
long-term social issue involving teen pregnancy prevention,
recreation, child care, domestic violence prevention, health care,
mental health, school policy, drug abuse prevention and treatment, and
other matters that are not easily touted in 10-second ``crack down''
sound bites.

I was counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the
Judiciary's subcommittees on crime and criminal justice for more than
nine years. Speeches were full of feel-good rhetoric that fighting
crime was too important an issue for partisan bickering, but almost
every major bill, initiative and amendment was advanced for partisan

Eric E. Sterling Washington, DC [The writer is president of the
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.]