THIS year, as every election year in memory, candidates in the United States are wielding the crime issue as a sure-fire way of showing voters they're the right kind of people. There's nothing really wrong with this. Crime continues to rank high among the concerns of Americans. Would-be governors or legislators would be remiss if they didn't pay attention to drug use, muggings, and murder. So when GOP gubenatorial hopeful Clayton Williams in Texas talks about teaching drug dealers the ``jobs of busting rocks,'' or Democratic candidate Dianne Feinstein in California asserts her readiness to electrocute convicts in order to protect the public, they're doing what's expected. But they might do well to remember that this is a year when the electorate is disgusted that politicians don't get more done once they're in office.
That complaint is directed specifically at fiscal mismanagement by government. But it could easily be aimed, also, at government's inability to reduce crime. After decades of anticrime campaign pledges, and after an expansion of prison populations to the point that 37 states are under court order to control overcrowding, do Americans really think that tough talk equals meaningful action?
Campaign rhetoric aside, police departments and prosecutors are beginning to test some promising new avenues in the war against crime. The concept of ``community policing,'' which involves officers more closely in neighborhood life in order to prevent crime, is catching on. The police may show public housing tenants how to better protect themselves, or they make take a hand in getting youths off the street and into sports or other constructive activities.
With prisons overflowing, more thought is being given to effective punishment short of incarceration. Well monitored probation and restitution to victims are approaches getting renewed attention. These aren't cheap. They require added probation officers and other personnel. But they're bargains compared to ever larger prisons.
Crime has to be fought on all fronts - better education opportunities and better job-training to lift people out of poverty, as well as pursuit and punishment.
Candidates are at least beginning to mention this broader picture. They talk of strengthening education, for instance, as a means of fighting crime. They should expand that more enlightened approach. And voters should reward those who move beyond the tired old rhetoric.