Washington's Crime Bill: View From The Trenches

SAMUEL MILLS has owned and operated Sam's News Stand on Washington's Georgia Avenue for the past 20 years. On several occasions his cashiers, including his son, have been robbed at gunpoint.

``The biggest problem is across the street,'' Mr. Mills says, pointing to a low-rise apartment complex turned crack house that overlooks his store. ``There's a lot of drug dealing there, and a lot of troublemakers hanging out.''

Would more police on the Georgia Avenue beat make the area safe? Is erecting more prisons the best way to eliminate criminal activity?

``Just the mere presence of police would deter criminal activity,'' Mills says. ``I hear that the prisons are overcrowded, so we could use more, but I also hear from the police that judges are too lenient, so we ought to put people away longer.''

Plans to hire more officers, build more jails, stiffen jail terms, and fund drug treatment programs are major provisions of high-profile crime bills offered by President Clinton and Capitol Hill legislators. As Congress debates versions of a crime bill to be voted on by Memorial Day, victims, such as Mills and others - including security experts, school administrators, and sheriffs - challenge Washington to meet their needs.

``One out of four people in some way has been a victim of a crime,'' says Ted Sexton, Tuscaloosa County, Ala., sheriff, who has gone national with his proposals for a tougher penal code and warnings about prison overcrowding in the state.

``The community wants the violent offender off the street, and very few jails or prison systems in this country are not under court order to create more space. We have a very jammed up system,'' Mr. Sexton says.

Like many jurisdictions across the country, Sexton's county and state governments lack the financial resources to cover their costs. ``We're hoping that the crime bill will reach out to the largest cities,'' adds Sexton, expectantly. ``We have an application in for a police-hiring supplement.''

But the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a national group of police department officials, rebukes the crime bills' calls for 100,000 more federally mandated police.

``Police are making more arrests every year, the level has risen every year since 1986-1987, when crack hit the streets. We need more prosecutors, judges, and prison space which will close the revolving door,'' says Jim Fotis, LEAA's executive director. ``Adding 100,000 cops won't do the American people any good if cops continue to be shackled and hamstrung by the system.''

Adding more police and more prisons is an ``outdated, labor intensive, and costly solution,'' says Francis D'Addario, director of loss prevention at the Rocky Mount, North Carolina-based Hardees Food Systems Inc.

Mr. D'Addario, a leading voice in the security field, calls Washington's crime bills naked political maneuvers to convince voters that their leaders are intent on addressing the crime issue. ``It ought to be called `I need to get to the next election,''' he says.

Instead, Mr. D'Addario urges the federal government to ``make Americans accountable'' by supporting practical prevention. He says Crimestoppers - a program that promotes anonymous tips about criminal activity by providing financial rewards - should be in every municipality throughout the country.

In schools, students could call in anonymously to turn in drug peddlers or weapon carriers. D'Addario advocates it not only as ``a safe means to make people accountable,'' but as far less time consuming and costly than hiring guards and setting up metal detectors for students to walk through each time they enter the school. It's already working well in the private sector, he adds. ``More and more companies are offering a standard reward for [information on ] crimes against their customers, employees, and property.''

Those who recall past federal efforts to combat crime are skeptical about Washington's staying power. Joseph Rosetti, a former Justice Department official during Lyndon Johnson's presidency, remembers the public outcry that ``drove the 1967-1968 presidential commission on crime.'' The Safe Streets Act, which resulted from the commission's work, was very similar to the current crime bills, he says, ``because it brought to the forefront the issue of federal financial and technical support for the state and local fight against crime.''

Recommendations for more police, alternatives to incarceration, work release programs, and a host of other initiatives were put into action with several billion dollars pledged from Washington. Mr. Rosetti, then an East Coast administrator for the law enforcement assistance administration, oversaw one of the nation's biggest crime areas and his area was one of the biggest recipients of the federal assistance. But by the mid-1970s, ``the program that was supposed to be the answer to the crime problem [lost political backing and] died,'' he says.

``There's no sustainability in the funding,'' he says. ``Soon [the crime bill] will fall into the states' laps, and then the states will find that they have other priorities.''

``There is still no national consensus on how to tackle crime,'' says Rosetti, now vice chairman of Kroll Associates, a private investigative firm. ``We don't really understand what prevention means. There is no legitimate debate over, say, whether pre-kindergarten is more important [as a crime deterrent] than adding more police.''

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