As governor of California, Ronald Reagan agonized over the single execution he ordered carried out, but he did not stop it. In addressing the nation's crime problem this week, the President faces a similar if less dramatic dilemma, one that gets to the heart of his personal political philosophy.
"Controlling crime in American society isn't simply a question of more money, more police, more courts, more prosecutors," he told a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in New Orleans. "It is ultimately a moral dilemma, one that calls for a moral or, if you will, a spiritual solution."
As perceptive as this assessment may be, the President still has to deal in practical political terms with a national crime rate that has increased 42 percent since 1971. And he has to deal with it while trying to impose unprecedented government cutbacks.
The administration's crime plan includes cracking down on criminals -- especially those involved in violent crime or drug dealing -- and finding ways to compensate the victims of crime. But for political and budgetary reasons, it does not include several significant items that are being pushed on Capitol Hill , among them building more prisons and enacting stiffer gun control.
As with so much of the social change that is coming with the Reagan administration, federal efforts to curb crime are linked to efforts to rein in government spending. The White House reportedly wants to abolish the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and has had to cut spending for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Rep. William J. Hughes (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, says this will cut through the "muscle and bone" of the nation's crimefighting efforts. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts urges the administration to "put its money where its rhetoric is" and spend more for law enforcement.
The House Judiciary Committee last week approved a bill sending $170 million each year to state and local governments for anticrime aid. It is a sum chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey says "does not even approach the magnitude of a modest Pentagon cost overrum" but one that could well be vetoed by the President as "budget busting."
There are, however, important areas of federal crime control on which the President and many members of Congress apparently agree. Reagan's New Orleans speech generally coincided with legislative proposals now advancing on Capitol Hill, among them:
* Reforming bail laws so that judges can decide whether or not to release defendants based upon their danger to the community.
* Changing the so-called "exclusionary rule" so that some illegally obtained evidence could be used by prosecutors if law enforcement officials did not knowingly break the law.
* Changing the "Prose Comitatus Act" to allow military personnel and equipment to be used in stemming drug trafficking.
* Imposing mandatory sentences on those who carry a gun while committing a crime.
Congressional proposals would go further in controlling guns, and the President ignored the recommendation of his own crime task force with this limited reference to guns. That Justice Department task force urged the banning of imported gun parts to make cheap "Saturday night specials", said gun owners should be required to report the theft of their firearms, and recommended a waiting period to check a person's record before a handgun purchase would be allowed.
In his speech this week, the President stressed his concern for the victims of crime. He will appoint a task force to study how victims and witnesses are treated by the justice system, and said he favors legislation allowing judges to order criminals to make restitution to their victims.
At the same time, he sharply disagrees with those who "discuss crime only in the context of disadvantaged childhoods and poverty stricken neighborhoods."
He links the growing crime rate with the nation's economic troubles, seeing both as the outgrowth of "utopian presumptions about human nature" that have led to the growth in government.
Supporters call this view visionary, opponents naive and impractical. But none could deny that the President voices the essence of his philosophy when he says:
"The solution to the crime problem will not be found in the social worker's files, the psychiatrist's notes, or the bureaucrat's budget; it's a problem of the human heart, and it's there we must look for the answer."