Pubdate: Mon, 26 July  1999
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 1999, The Tribune Co.
Author: ERIC E. STERLING Washington, DC[The writer is president of the
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.]
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 advantage.

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