Gore, Bush, and Crime

Aug. 25 2000 8:30 PM

Gore, Bush, and Crime

(Continued from Page 1)

Second, Congress often gets carried away in its search for headlines by passing laws that impose absurd penalties. To make the penalty for possessing crack cocaine 100 times more severe than it is for possessing powdered cocaine implies that the former is 100 times worse than the latter (which is nonsense), and it helps fill up prisons with people serving five-year sentences for possessing a rock when people who have burgled someone's home are serving two-year sentences.

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Third, Congress, like every legislature, is exposed to interest groups who ride politically fashionable hobbyhorses. A good example is the demand for a hate-crime law. A law should punish behavior, not the thought behind the behavior. The criminal law assigns great weight to intent (that is, the desire to hurt someone) but little to motive (that is, the reason for having the intent). A premeditated murder is worse than an unintended one, but it should make no difference whether the premeditation reflected a desire to get rich, respond to a Mafia contract, blow up a federal office building, or kill a black or a homosexual.

Some state hate laws go even further. In California, you commit a hate crime if your motive for selecting a victim is political affiliation or position in a labor dispute. Why not add attitudes toward global warming, bilingual education, or government employment?

But at least the states differ in these matters, and so silliness can be discovered. But when the federal government makes it a national offense—not just one for federal offenders—the silliness is made universal. I think we ought to keep silliness under control.

But there is one area where Washington, D.C., and thus either Bush or Gore, can make a difference, and that is to help cities and states reduce drug abuse among criminals. It can be done by inducing, with generous grants, the states to supply drug treatment programs in every prison and to reshape probation and parole so that every offender not in prison who has had a drug problem undergoes frequent drug tests. The goal is not only to get drug-abusing criminals started on the road to recovery, but to insist that when in the community they stay clean or risk a return to jail.

Reducing drug use among criminals would be a huge step to addressing a real root cause of crime. 

James Q. Wilson is the author of books about crime, politics, bureaucracy, and human character.