BOSTON — DEDSPITE a high concern among Americans about crime, the nation's governors largely ignored the issue at their annual meeting this week.
``The issue has kind of moved to the back burner,'' says Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, due mainly to slow progress by Congress on the long-pending $30 billion crime bill.
But, says the Republican chief executive, one of five governors on the National Governors' Association's leadership team on crime, ``I think the public is very concerned about it and I think the failure to address it would be a big mistake.''
Experts on crime say the issue needs to be addressed by the states, more than by the federal government.
``Murder, rape and robbery are all handled by state systems,'' says James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. He says the NGA's failure to take a more aggressive stand reflects the intense partisan and public divisions surrounding crime.
``Mandatory sentencing, the death penalty, gun control - these issues divide people and their elected officials,'' he says. ``It's not surprising that the governors wouldn't find political agreement on such a hot issue.''
What the governors could agree on was a strong desire for fewer strings-attached initiatives from Washington lawmakers eager to look tough on crime.
House and Senate conference committees are currently negotiating on possible compromise final versions of the crime bill and funding for a popular anti-crime grant program.
The NGA has been lobbying against the Senate version of the crime bill because it would require states to adopt tough sentencing policies to receive federal prison- construction grants. The governors also adopted new language this week for their crime policy that emphasizes the need for more flexibility in new federal crime initiatives.
The governors are especially unhappy with the Senate's vote to provide only $423 million, half of what the House approved, in funding for the Edward Byrne memorial grant program in fiscal year 1995.
The governors say the program allows states to tailor the grants to their state's needs and experiment with innovative crime prevention, policing, and incarceration programs. ``There's a huge concern across the country about ... how far the federal government is going to reach into state and local law enforcement,'' Governor Racicot says. ``If they want to help, they shouldn't try to extract too much from the process and create such onerous partnerships.''
Amid mixed results for boot-camps, stubborn recidivism rates, and record nationwide prison populations, many governors have come forward with comprehensive anti-crime proposals.
The diverse initiatives include proposals to enlarge youth jobs programs and ban minors from possessing handguns in several states, fine or sentence parents to community service for their children's crimes in Nevada, and implement lifetime registration and supervision of all sex offenders in Montana.
Criminologist Fox says states should be allowed to continue to experiment without federal interference. ``I think it's unfortunate that the Senate is appealing to the emotions of the American public and the notion that the more punishment, the better,'' he says. ``The federal government should just be providing money. There shouldn't be so many strings attached.''