NO ONE argues that the United States has a major battle ahead in fighting crime. Even though statistics show many categories of crime are actually dropping, most Americans feel less safe. Government action has been needed.
Last fall, a balanced crime bill passed Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton. It enjoyed bipartisan support; in the House, for example, 46 Republicans and 189 Democrats voted for it. It contained funds for a two-pronged attack on crime - punishment and prevention, an approach widely favored by criminal justice experts, police, prison wardens, and average Americans.
A recent survey by the National League of Cities continues to show the logic of this balanced approach. The respondents, 382 elected officials in cities whose population was 10,000 or more, were asked what government could do to reduce crime.
The top two answers, ``supporting family stability'' and ``jobs and targeted economic development,'' showed that these officials recognize that crime fighting must not be confined only to how much punishment to inflict after crimes have been committed.
The next six responses - ``more police officers,'' ``after-school programs,'' ``neighborhood watch programs,'' ``more police foot patrols,'' ``school-to-work programs,'' and ``more recreational programs'' - match the balanced approach of the current law. It provides money to put more police on the streets while earmarking some funds - $4 billion out of $30 billion altogether - for crime prevention.
The Republican leadership talks about moving government closer to the people, letting local officials take more of the lead. Yet their Taking Back Our Streets Act, the provisions of which may be voted on in the House today, would take the balanced law now on the books - the approach favored by local city officials - and throw it out the window.
What would replace it? The new measures would spend $10 billion on prison building and further tighten death-penalty laws. Where do these rank with the local officials who must do daily battle with crime in their streets? At the very bottom of their list.
Why are prison populations booming? Because drug-related crimes continue to soar while most other categories are stable or dropping. Yet the new bill would wipe out $1 billion to establish special drug courts.
A final irony: Under the new bill, even the prison-building money will be hard to get at. Only three states have sentencing laws tough-enough to qualify for $5 billion of it. Other states would be forced to pass such laws.
Isn't Congress supposed to be getting the federal government out of local decisions?