Gore, Bush, and Crime

Aug. 25 2000 8:30 PM

Gore, Bush, and Crime

For perhaps the first time since 1964, crime is not a major issue in the presidential election. Both candidates have positions on crime, but they are remarkably similar.

George W. Bush supports the death penalty, a constitutional amendment that would give victims the right to be heard in criminal proceedings, and tougher juvenile crime laws.

Al Gore supports the death penalty, a constitutional amendment that would give victims the right to be heard in criminal proceedings, and tougher juvenile crime laws.

Not much of a choice. And there shouldn't be one, because these views are fully in accord with what the public wants. The Democratic Party, after spending decades in the crime wilderness, finally figured out in 1992 that it was not going to win many presidential elections if it did not back the death penalty and deal with crime as a fact instead of with "root causes" (some real, some imaginary) of crime. Before 1992, Republicans used crime as a wedge issue, but they cannot do this any longer.

Besides, crime rates have fallen dramatically in the country, and so most voters do not place this issue at the top of their list of priorities.

But crime rates will not stay down forever. In Los Angeles, the murder rate has begun to rise sharply, largely because of heightened conflict between street gangs. I suspect serious crimes will go up in other cities as well for one simple reason: They always move up and down, and there is nothing in history to suggest that the present levels will persist. And in any event, the rate of violent crime today is still three times higher than it was in 1960.

But since I doubt that presidents can do much about crime, I doubt that presidential candidates should claim they will do much about it. My doubts, of course, are from a political perspective quite irrational; what candidate for office ever denies that he or she can do something about a major issue?

But I have another reason for resisting presidential claims. Too often we have tried to combat crime by nationalizing the penal code, making ordinary crimes committed in cities, and thus investigated and prosecuted by local authorities, federal offenses so that the president and Congress can claim they are doing something about crime. Now we have made carjacking and failure to pay child support federal crimes, many would like to see "hate crimes" (whatever they are) a federal offense, and federal law imposes draconian penalties for possessing small amounts of crack cocaine.

The public may feel good when these laws are passed, and Congress may love doing something symbolic without having to appropriate any money to do it, but the process is worrisome.

First, and most important, it risks converting the FBI and other federal agencies into a national police. The authors of the Constitution would have been appalled by the idea. And when some of the first federal crime laws were passed, such as the Mann Act (which forbids the transportation of women across state lines for "immoral purposes"), many in Congress were worried that the FBI would usurp the authority of local governments. The FBI clearly has an important role—namely, to investigate criminal behavior that is truly national because it involves actions that cross state lines or the national borders. But if federalism means anything at all, it means local control of our central local institutions, such as the police and the schools.

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.

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.