Election 2012: Crime Policy at the Crossroads


Crime policy is among the least discussed topics of the current presidential campaign. That's odd, because debates over crime and drug problems dominated national elections from 1964 to 2000. Since then, international terrorism has supplanted domestic crime as a public focus.

Crime policy is complex and controversial. So it's not surprising that the candidates want to talk about other topics.

Serious and violent crime has been declining in the U.S. since the mid-1990s. FBI data from 2011 shows a continued drop in violent crime. This good news is marred by a series of tragic mass shootings. After each one, we have a brief national conversation on gun control, but no new policies have emerged.

The mass media continue to highlight sensational violent crime.

Sen. Arlen Specter—who recently passed away—repeatedly reminded us that ignoring America's crime problem is a big mistake. He pointed out that the U.S. has one of the highest violence rates in the world, and that more Americans died due to violent crime than in all foreign wars in the past 50 years.

Crime impacts our schools, our neighborhoods, and our social fabric.

So how do Gov. Mitt Romney and Cong. Paul Ryan differ from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on critical crime issues?

The answer is not so simple. Neither campaign has posted detailed or concrete statements about how to reduce and prevent crime; and none of the debates delved deeply into the subject. The party platforms are a hodgepodge of ideas on crime issues. No help there.

So, let's look at the record.

We can judge the Obama-Biden team on their budgets, the actions of the Justice Department, and their legislative initiatives. Cong. Ryan has a well-documented record on crime related fiscal and policy matters. Gov. Romney's views can be partially evaluated by his actions as the Massachusetts chief executive, when he unsuccessfully ran for the Senate, and during this campaign.

Let's start with federal funding.

Obama and Biden have forcefully defended the role of the federal government in helping local and state law enforcement. The Democratic ticket wants to support localities to avoid layoffs of police officers.

They also want to expand services for crime victims, juvenile delinquency prevention, reentry services for prisoners, research, and innovative drug treatment. The President would continue substantial funding for the FBI, the DEA, and federal prosecution of white-collar criminals.

Romney and Ryan, while opaque on the specifics, would make major cuts in federal law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They would largely end federal grants to states and localities for crime fighting and criminal justice research.

They support amending key federal laws to make it more difficult to prosecute criminal behavior on Wall Street and in the banking and insurance industries. Interestingly, the Republican platform argues for a libertarian philosophy that would legalize most illicit drugs and lessen federal authority in crime fighting. Romney and Ryan have not publicly endorsed this view.

Obama and Biden have advocated for expanding the Violence Against Women Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. but House Republicans, including Paul Ryan, have opposed these legislative initiatives.

President Obama designed and passed significant reforms of federal sentencing laws reducing the excessively harsh penalties for crack cocaine. Republicans have opined that these changes would lead to massive early releases of dangerous felons. There is no evidence to support this fear.

Neither side has proposed major new gun policies.

While President Obama favors regulating military assault weapons, Gov. Romney has completely embraced the National Rifle Association position of rolling back existing gun laws.

Both candidates support capital punishment for egregious crimes. In 2002 Romney tried unsuccessfully to bring back the death penalty in Massachusetts— an effort that resulted in rare bipartisanship. Both parties opposed it.

Romney wanted to explore privatizing Massachusetts prisons to save money. The Obama administration conducted solid research that questioned the cost savings of for-profit prisons. Former President George Bush expanded private federal prisons during his administration. However, serious scandals plagued some of these facilities, which President Obama has had to clean up.

For example, there were major problems at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation facilities run by private prison companies related to abuse of undocumented persons. The Obama Administration had to confront problems of widespread violence, contraband and excessive force at Bureau of Prisons facilities run by for-profit prison companies.

Then there is the Supreme Court.

In recent years the constitutional rights of youth in the justice system have advanced, with the abolition of the death penalty and mandatory life sentences for minors. These very narrow decisions could be reversed by a more conservative Court, with additional members reflecting the views of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Both candidates favor more parental supervision of at-risk youth, better schools, improved mental health services, and brighter economic prospects.

President Obama sees an affirmative role for government to help communities achieve these goals. Gov. Romney would rely on the free market and the good will of charities, religious groups, and neighbors to accomplish these objectives.

President Obama would demand that efforts be based on scientific research and evidence-based practices. Gov. Romney seems less persuaded by the value of science.

Barry Krisberg is Research and Policy Director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California Berkeley Law School. He welcomes comments from readers.

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