AUSTIN, TEXAS — TEXAN Ann Richards has a record on crime that a Republican governor might envy: tougher sentencing and parole laws for violent felons, a colossal prison-expansion program, and a decline in crime despite an increase in population.
Yet Governor Richards, a Democrat, is battling for a second term against a challenger who says she's soft on crime.
The race is close at this point - an indication that voter preoccupation with the crime issue could spell trouble for incumbent governors facing reelection.
Thirty-six states will elect a governor this November. The crime issue in one or more of its manifestations - youth violence, guns, and the amount of prison time actually served - ``has popped up in almost all the races,'' says Doug Richardson, director of communications at the Democratic Governors Association.
The latest data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations show that only five of the 36 states saw an increase in their overall crime rate from 1991 to 1992. The violent crime rate rose in just over half of the states.
``People perceive a problem with crime and a need to be tougher, regardless of statistics,'' says James Brown, director of the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
In California, the crime and immigration issues reinvigorated the campaign of GOP incumbent Pete Wilson. Iowa's Terry Branstad, a Republican, recently introduced a crime package that would return capital punishment to state law after a 30-year absence. Both governors have sought to make support of the death penalty a litmus test for true toughness on crime.
Mr. Richardson says that although crime is widely perceived as a Republican issue, many Democratic incumbents have carved out reputations as crime fighters. Georgia's Zell Miller signed the nation's only ``two strikes and you're out'' law for violent felons. At the expense of offending the National Rifle Association, Roy Romer of Colorado passed a crime package that tries to keep guns out of the hands of juveniles.
Now Governor Romer faces a hard race against a Republican who has vowed to eliminate parole. That same pledge helped the GOP candidate to win the Virginia governor's office last year.
``You see some of this around the country,'' Richardson comments. ``The incumbent is strong on the crime issue, so the challenger says `You're tough, but I'd be even tougher.' ''
It ought to be difficult to make that claim against the Texas governor. When Richards took office in 1991, Texas prisons still operated under the supervision of a federal court 19 years after an inmate lawsuit complained of overcrowded conditions in the so-called Ruiz case.
In order to save prison space for more recent offenders, violent and nonviolent felons served a fraction of their sentences before being paroled. Thus, the prison system had the reputation for being a revolving door.
Then, in 1992 the state settled the Ruiz case. It has embarked on a construction program that will give Texas more prison beds than any Western nation except the United States. And a sweeping rewrite of the state's penal code last year focused on keeping violent criminals behind bars for far longer - at least 40 years in the case of capital felons.
The number of violent offenders who win early release has declined by two-thirds since 1990, while the number of violent criminals behind bars is up 36 percent. Prison releases are at their lowest level in 10 years.
Meanwhile, the volume of crime has declined for two-and-a-half years, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). Richards claims credit.
The improvement, however, is ``highly unlikely'' to have been caused by prisons now under construction or harsher sentencing laws that only took effect this month, says William Stone, associate professor of criminal justice at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
George W. Bush, the former president's son and Richards's opponent, has criticized the Ruiz settlement, saying says the penal code rewrite is too lenient on non-violent felons. Now Mr. Bush is promoting a 17-point plan to revamp the state's juvenile-justice system. The DPS calls ``the continued rise in juvenile arrests'' an issue ``of serious concern.''
Richards has her own plan for juvenile-justice reform. Thus, regardless of who wins in November, crime will remain at the top of the state's agenda.