US Governors Vie to Be The Toughest on Crime
Responding to public concerns, states try new ideas to curb violence
WASHINGTON — GOVERNORS are talking tough - and getting tough - on crime.
Whether they are Republicans or Democrats, Northerners or Southerners, liberals or conservatives, the message from governors is similar: The nation needs more police, more prison cells, longer jail sentences, and a severe crackdown on violent criminals.
Coast to coast, states are taking steps to make it happen, and urging Washington to join the effort.
At their annual winter meeting here, the nation's governors widely praised President Clinton's promise to support a ``three strikes and you're out'' proposal to put habitual felons in jail for life. And they strongly support his vow to put another 100,000 police officers on duty.
``Any place you put more policemen on the street, it helps,'' says Gov. Jim Edgar (R) of Illinois.
Responding to tremendous public pressure, meanwhile, governors have a host of their own ideas to handcuff the nation's worst criminals.
Gov. Terry Branstad (R) of Iowa would take away the right to own firearms ``for life'' for any student who brings a gun into a school.
Gov. Zell Miller (D) of Georgia, who nominated Mr. Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, goes the president one better. He supports a ``two strikes and you're out'' law against violent criminals.
Gov. George Allen (R) of Virginia would abolish parole. If that measure makes the prisons overcrowded, he would begin requiring convicts to live two to a cell.
Even Republicans were pleased with Clinton's strong words about crime in recent days, though their praise for the Democratic president sometimes sounds a bit faint.
``We are encouraged to see Democrats starting to recognize that we need to get tough on violent crime,'' says Governor Branstad. ``Generally, Democrats haven't been too interested in that issue.''
Democrat Miller, however, was unequivocal. ``He's got his priorities right,'' Miller said of the president. ``We need stiffer sentences. We need more incarceration and additional prisons, and we need more police on the beat. He's hitting right on the main areas as far as I'm concerned.''
Governor Allen of Virginia agreed, though he noted that it was Republicans like himself who made the crime issue paramount during last year's elections.
``We welcome the Clinton administration onto the bandwagon,'' Allen says. ``I look at plagiarism as the highest form of flattery.''
As public concern about crime grows, the states are fulfilling their role as ``laboratories of democracy'' by trying unusual ideas to control crime.
For example, Gov. Fife Symington (R) of Arizona became alarmed before Christmas about a string of car-jackings by gangs. There weren't enough police to calm public concerns, so the governor did what any good Westerner would do: He called out the sheriff's posse.
Up to 1,000 trained, armed members of the posse - all of them unpaid volunteers - patrolled shopping malls during the Christmas season on foot, in Jeeps, on bicycles, and on horseback. They immediately brought the problem under control.
``It worked,'' Governor Symington says. ``We totally suppressed it.''
The governor believes the posse showed what's often lacking in crime control - physical deterrence. There's an urgent need to ``let the bad guys know that you're going to be there waiting for them. If they dare do anything, you're going to get 'em,'' says the governor, who was once a posse volunteer.
Governor Edgar of Illinois says of the crime problem: ``I don't think there's any one solution. There probably are not two or three solutions. There's a whole host of things we've got to do in the war against crime.'' One of the most important things: Be not only tough, but smart, the governor says.
In Illinois, that means trying to rehabilitate criminals so that they're not right back in jail within months after getting out.
To make that happen, Illinois has emphasized two things. First, help convicts develop job skills, so they can get employment and won't have to steal, after being released. Second, put convicts through drug therapy, so they won't return to crime to support their habits.
Even so, the Illinois prison population is expanding. ``Every year for 14 years we've built a new prison,'' Edgar says. ``We've got to do a better job at trying to rehabilitate those that are going to go out.... That will help us in reducing the recidivism rate.''
What was striking at this year's four-day meeting, which ended Feb. 1, was the determination among state leaders to take whatever steps are necessary to get crime in check.
The governors reflected what pollsters say is a deep-seated anger and fear of violent crime among Americans, whether they are in California or Oklahoma or South Carolina.
In some cases, that will mean expanded budgets for crime control, but governors indicated they were willing to spend it. Miller of Georgia will open 11,000 new prison cells during his four-year term, more than any Georgia governor in history. He has also built more boot camps for young offenders than any governor in the nation.
``We have the space,'' Miller says. ``We're sure we can do it [hold all necessary felons] up through the year 2008,'' he says.