IF a single highly publicized case snapped the crime issue into its current focus, it was the kidnapping and later murder of Polly Klaas from her upstairs bedroom during a slumber party last year in California.
The alleged killer had been convicted of kidnapping twice already and had been released after serving half of a 16-year sentence.
The leading purpose in the politics of crime this year is to keep repeat violent offenders off the streets and in prison. Key Democrats, including President Clinton, as well as Republicans are promoting mandatory life sentences without parole for felons convicted of their third violent crime.
So far, only Washington State has actually enacted a ``three-strikes-and-you're-out'' law, but at least 30 states have legislation or petition drives under way - including California and New York.
And the United States Senate crime bill passed last fall contained a three-strikes provision that takes effect when the third violent crime includes a federal offense.
The House, which is taking its package of crime laws through one subject at a time, expresses growing support for a three-strikes provision too. The chairman of the Democratic Caucus, Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, introduced a version at the end of the last session.
The House may draft the law more narrowly than the Senate. One staff aide in the House suggested that the Senate may have ``piled on'' a bit and written too sweeping a law. The House would not want to require a life term for someone for ``two bad checks and a fight at a football game,'' the aide says.
Public concern over violent crime surged late last summer, and as economic discontent has inched down, crime has emerged in surveys as the subject mentioned most often as the nation's most important problem.
The rise in crime in the public mind does not correspond to any overall increase in crime in general, or to violent crime in particular. According to national victimization reports by the Justice Department, violent crime peaked in the early 1980s. In the past couple of years, it has held steady. Crime rates overall are lower now than 20 years ago when the Bureau of Justice Statistics began tracking victimization.
Public concern does, however, correspond to intensive media coverage of the murders of Michael Jordan's father in North Carolina and a series of foreign tourists in Florida last year. Further, violence has become more concentrated among school-aged youth with unprecedented firepower. This trend has heightened concern over children's safety.
According to polling research and focus-group discussions by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, concern over crime and a raft of other public anxieties are ``directly tied to the belief that the fabric of society seems to be unraveling.''
Here in Washington, politicians tackled guns first, passing the Brady bill last fall to establish a waiting period for handgun purchases.
Many members of Congress hope to go further this spring in banning so-called assault weapons deemed especially dangerous and without sporting use. Congress also passed a Clinton proposal to pay for putting 100,000 more police on the streets around the country.
If polls and news coverage were not enough to mobilize politicians, the November elections were. Crime was a major issue in gubernatorial and mayoral elections around the country, and the tough-talking candidates generally won.
Tony Fabrizio, the campaign pollster for Virginia's new Republican governor, George Allen, credits the crime issue with a major role in the victory last November. Mr. Fabrizio has now taken to warning Republicans - who voters have traditionally trusted as harder-nosed crimefighters - that they are losing the issue to Democrats.
Late in November, Washington State voters adopted the three-strikes-and-you're-out law by a landslide referendum. Since then, such prominent Democrats as President Clinton and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo have actively endorsed the idea.
The certainty and severity of punishment for serious crimes has been a leading public priority all along. In the Public Opinion Strategies study testing public views of a number of anti-crime propositions, the most widely favored idea and the one most widely considered to be effective was to require criminals to serve at least 75 percent of their sentences.
The risk of going to prison for a violent crime has in fact dropped in the past five years, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures.
``The reason it has dropped is because the risk of going to prison has risen dramatically for drug offenses and public-order offenses,'' says Jacqueline Cohen, a Carnegie Mellon University criminologist.