`Tough' Isn't Enough

PRESIDENT BUSH's anticrime package flows right from his campaign rhetoric of last fall. Its keynotes are more cells in the federal prison system and more use of the death penalty. Coming on the heels of drug czar William Bennett's recommendation of boot camp for drug users, the $1.7 billion proposal has ``tough on crime'' written all over it. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps, if the prescribed toughness will actually decrease crime. Prisons are a huge growth industry in the United States already. In 1980, there were 139 inmates per 100,000 Americans; as of last year, the ratio had jumped to 237 per 100,000. In 1987 and '88 alone, the US spent nearly $4 billion on new prisons. Tough-on-crime politics, always in vogue but particularly popular during the Reagan years, has certainly helped build and fill prisons.

But has it lessened crime? At best, it's helped manage it. With the recidivism rates in state prisons - which house the bulk of inmates - at 60 percent, incarceration is clearly not the complete answer to crime. It only takes criminals out of circulation for a while; it doesn't reduce their numbers.

And the death penalty, which the President would like to extend to murder for hire and murder with automatic or semiautomatic weapons? Unquestionably such crimes demand strict punishment. But capital punishment remains a legal and moral morass. There is no evidence that state-sanctioned killing does anything to deter murderers; if anything, it heightens a climate of violence and revenge.

And Mr. Bennett's boot camp idea? ``Shock probation,'' as it's sometimes called, has been applied in a number of Southern states and has shown itself a cost-effective alternative to incarceration for first-time offenders. A boot camp option - involving discipline, physical exercise, and little free time - might at least teach some young drug users that their behavior will have consequences. It could be particularly effective for the white, casual, suburban users whose dollars keep the drug markets prospering. Will it reach the root problems of drug use - aimless lives, distorted values? No.

The problem with the traditional get-tough-on-crime approach is its narrowness. Sure, new prison space and clear penalties are needed. It's just that a lot more is needed, too - and we don't hear much about that from elected leaders. They're too afraid of appearing ``soft.''

What about better drug education and treatment? They are at least as central to the so-called demand side of the drug problem as disciplinarian punishments are. What about the alternatives to incarceration - intensive supervision, house arrest, community-based corrections - that are beginning to show promise of cutting back on recidivism and easing prison overcrowding? What about an intensive effort to provide inmates with credible work experience?

Getting tough on crime should include these things, too.

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