The backlash over furloughed Massachusetts prisoner Willie Horton helped cost Michael Dukakis the 1988 presidential election. There is no crime controversy like that swirling in the current race for the White House, says St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario, but with a year to go, anything can happen. Let’s try to keep crime from being politicized, argued Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University, among a host of criminologists, police chiefs, policymakers, government officials, and academics in the two-day symposium last week at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I wish that crime policy does not come into the political campaign because almost always when a crime incident does come into play, it is not based on rational policy but a sound bite that stimulates electoral response,” said Blumstein.
Blumstein and others say the public is still vulnerable to the ”soft on crime” political spin and has not fully embraced the wisdom of effective sentencing reform or other proven measures that reduce crime or recidivism rates. A John Jay College national survey bears him out. Putting more cops on the street and toughening sentencing laws tied for first place among the measures that registered voters believe will solve the crime problem. So far, it’s not a campaign issue. “If you don’t have to get into it, you want to avoid it,” said Bobby Vassar, chief majority counsel to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. Laurie Robinson, an assistant U.S. Attorney General in the Clinton administration, believes the crime issue will flare into the spotlight before the presidential election. Among other things, she cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to review the Washington, D.C., handgun ban. “I can’t think of a more volatile crime issue,” said Robinson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s masters of science program in criminology.