INFUSED with election-year energy, members of Congress return to work today with the word ``crime'' ringing in their ears.
Tonight, President Clinton's State of the Union message is expected to deal with the subject at some length. Among the proposals expected: mandatory life sentences for people convicted of three violent felonies, sentencing reform, and at least general calls for greater emphasis on drug treatment and prevention programs.
Republican lawmakers, fresh from a weekend get-tough strategy session, hope to capitalize on an issue that traditionally has been a strong one for them. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia claimed that ``no matter what President Clinton says in the State of the Union,'' his administration ``is undermining law and order and making things easier for criminals.''
Two elements of this discussion - if it can be called that - are troubling.
The first involves setting unrealistic expectations for the president and Congress, particularly through appeals to fear. Clearly crime is a significant public concern. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll released last Friday, 93 percent of the respondents say that dealing with crime should be ``an absolute priority'' for Mr. Clinton and Congress this year. On Sunday in a New York Times/CBS News poll, ``crime and violence'' was most frequently cited as the single biggest problem facing the country. Yet the largest field of action is likely to be at the state level, where the number of anticrime bills being drafted already is outpacing those dealing with any other issue. Overselling Washington's role will feed the cynicism that has left only 30 percent of Americans approving of Congress's performance.
More troubling is the overemphasis on toughness. The approach is understandable: It lends itself to instant political gratification. No one would argue that criminals should go unpunished. But lost in one-upmanship are attempts to get at the root of crime: the poverty, hopelessness, and moral indifference that feed violence, particularly in the inner cities. GOP presidential hopeful Jack Kemp struck a lonely but relevant note at the party's weekend gathering: ``There's got to be something between gun control on the left and just building more prison space on the right.'' The GOP, he said, should bring the hope of ``more jobs, more ownership of property, a bigger stake in the system'' to inner cities.
A balanced approach is needed; it must be part of the discussion.