Crime Bill: Solution or Pork Barrel?
WASHINGTON — THE anticrime bill, in the final stages of its multiyear journey through Congress, seems to contain something for everybody - more police officers, more prisons, more prevention programs.
But is it sound public policy? Or is it just a pricey package that House and Senate members can tout in this fall's campaigns as an example of Congress actually doing something about a top concern of Americans?
Congressional supporters of the bill argue both ways. Certainly, Democratic strategists say, the $30-billion, six-year bill lays to rest the old charge that Democrats are soft on crime. But the legislation, which originated during the Reagan administration, is also based on years of hearings, studies, and research into how to deal with crime, says an aide to Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chief architect of the bill.
Many academic criminologists beg to differ. ``This is fraudulent pork barrel,'' says David Bayley, a criminologist at State University of New York in Albany. ``Not only are most of the features likely not to make a difference, but what this bill does is to give money to every congressman's district.''
At a meeting Professor Bayley and other criminologists had with top Justice Department officials in January, the academics made this point, he says. ``They were astonished,'' Bayley says.
Take the popular provision to put 100,000 more police on the streets and to emphasize community policing. ``If they were all put in high-crime areas, it might have an impact,'' Bayley says. ``But that's unlikely. This will be politically distributed justice, spread thin across the country.''
A popular trend
The Justice Department is taking applications from police forces around the country with proposals for additional officers and how they will be incorporated into community-style policing, a technique that emphasizes having police walk beats and get to know neighborhoods. Though questioning this provision may seem a bit like questioning motherhood, mainstream criminologists don't hesitate to raise their eyebrows over this.
``We have mixed research on whether additional police can change crime rates,'' says Freda Adler of Rutgers University in New Jersey, president-elect of the American Society of Criminologists. As for community policing, she adds, ``we don't know when or where to use it. In some places, it may be right, but in some neighborhoods it may not work.''
In general, Professor Adler says, ``the public simply doesn't know that major components of the crime bill haven't been shown to work by the academic community.'' The crime bill doesn't set aside money for evaluation of its programs, but it does require state programs to file reports to the US attorney general, says the aide to Senator Biden. And, of course, he adds, the Judiciary Committee can always revisit any aspect of the program.
Crime-bill supporters, such as Bill Scully, president of the National Association of Police Organizations in Washington, say the criminologists are merely pitching for more research money for themselves. When anticrime legislation was being put together, police groups were asked what they needed. ``We said, `we need more cops on the street,''' Mr. Scully says. ``Look at the mayor of Houston: He hired 600 cops, and his violent crime rate fell 23 percent.''
Criminologists counter by arguing that, if asked, any good bureaucrat will request more employees. William Chambliss, a criminologist at George Washington University here, says the ``immense crime industry'' - such as gun manufacturers, uniform-makers, the companies that build prisons, police organizations - has lobbied effectively.
Jerome Skolnick, president of the American Society of Criminology, is a little more willing to put himself in the shoes of politicians. ``Opinion polls show crime is the No. 1 issue; the administration would be remiss if it didn't focus on crime,'' says Professor Skolnick, who teaches law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. ``I'd call it being responsive.''
The bill is being viewed on two levels: what can be done politically and what criminologists think ought to be done, Skolnick says. He wouldn't have written the bill this way, but ``looking at it from the perspective of politicians, this crime bill may be the best we can do. If I were in Congress I'd cheer for this.''
Some good seen
The criminologists interviewed were largely positive about the crime-prevention components of the bill - those, for example, that provide drug rehabilitation, job training, and after-school programs. But those are also the provisions that conservatives complain are ``soft'' and have little to do with fighting crime.
To win swing votes, provisions like ``three strikes and you're out'' - which puts three-time violent felons away for life - were added. ``Three strikes'' laws are being implemented all over the country, with strong public support. But that is exactly the kind of untested practice that makes many criminologists uneasy.