WHEN the talk turns to crime, the presidential candidates stiffen their lips and clench their fists, and we know we're in for another round of ``who can be toughest.'' Toughness is what's needed, all right, but it's time someone took the discussion beyond symbolic jabs at Michael Dukakis's prison furlough program or George Bush's antidrug efforts.
What can the next president really do to combat crime in the United States?
The country's criminal-justice system is largely in the hands of state and local officials. The president doesn't control how these officials run their prisons, for example. But he has the means to influence their decisions through agencies like the National Institute of Justice and the National Institute of Corrections. At present the NIJ gets a paltry $12 million a year for its research efforts. Overall, law enforcement gets less than 3 percent of the federal budget.
So, to begin with, the next president could redirect money toward the fight against crime. He could:
Strengthen the ability of the federal research institutes to act as coordinators of criminal-justice reform. Experts in the field note that officials in one state are often unaware of what colleagues in another state are trying. Innovations like the recent trend toward intensive supervision of parolees need to be promptly shared in all states. The same goes for programs that fail, to avoid wheel-spinning. Federal agencies are positioned to gather and disseminate ideas, and the cost - maybe tripling the present research budgets of NIJ and NIC - is reasonable.
Launch a program to have groups of law enforcement and corrections experts observe conditions in state and local penal systems and offer suggestions. Former Chief Justice Warren Burger has long advocated such a program.
Tackle head on the problem of how to accommodate a huge increase in the inmate population of federal prisons over the next five years. It is estimated that tougher drug laws and stricter federal sentencing guidelines could soon double that population, from 12,500 up to 25,000. How is the Bureau of Prisons going to cope? George Bush has said he is willing to build more federal prisons, but twice as many? Most of these new prisoners are going to be drug offenders. Should some of them be dealt with in ways other than incarceration? State and local officials will be waiting to see how federal authorities answer these questions.
The stark fact is that over the past decade the federal role as innovator in law enforcement and corrections has shrunk to almost nothing. Memories of the spotty track record of the now defunct Law Enforcement Assistance Administration may be one reason for this. But failed past federal efforts are no argument for abdication now.
Federal innovations - such as a comprehensive inmate classification program and ``unit management'' within large prisons - have proved helpful to local officials. The next president has an opportunity to rebuild the mechanisms for generating and sharing such ideas. We hope he takes it.