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Officials Seek to End Politicization of Crime Debate

Hundreds of public officials have signed a statement urging political candidates to refrain from "appeals to base human instincts and demagoguery" when discussing crime this election year. Furthermore, the statement criticizes past approaches to crime control, which it says have relied too heavily on prison as a criminal penalty.

The "Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy" was announced in Washington, D.C. press conference this summer. More than 350 officials have signed the one-page policy statement, and campaign leaders said they will continue to seek additional sponsors.

Not surprisingly, the sponsors include many criminal defense lawyers and others who might be expected to advocate limits on the growth of prisons. But the signatories also include the highest-ranking correctional officials of nearly 20 states, plus numerous wardens of individual institutions and other second and third tier corrections officials. Several former state corrections chiefs also have signed the statement. Other sponsors include present and former governors, attorneys general, prosecutors, police chiefs, judges, juvenile justice officials, academics, and legislators.

The statement reads, in part: "The cost of the criminal justice system, sustained mostly by state and local governments, has soared over the last decade and now threatens the ability to deliver many basic services.... Too often sentencing practices, laws and prison release policies needlessly hold offenders in prison, sometimes for long terms, when community-based alternatives would safely serve society's interest in punishment.... We believe that a wider network of intermediate sanctions is needed.... We are approaching--and, in some cases, have passed--the point at which it is productive to invest in expanding our prison systems. In this election year, we urge all candidates to refrain from politicizing crime and punishment policy. Appeals to base human instincts and demagoguery will ultimately make the problem worse. We call on candidates for political office to engage in an informed debate and to avoid advocating simple and quick-fix solutions."

Given the statement's contention that prisons have been overused, it is clear that the Bush campaign would be unlikely to sign it. Less than an hour after the Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy was announced, Attorney General William P. Barr was on Capitol Hill, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee, "I think that states have to invest more in their corrections systems.... Many states are not providing adequate prison space, and as a result, chronic offenders are being released much too early." The need for additional prison construction is one of the "critical issues" in the debate on crime control, Mr. Barr said.

Pennsylvania Corrections Commissioner (and former assistant director of corrections in Washington state) Joseph D. Lehman joined in supporting the "Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy" statement. "The call for a rational debate is a simple plea," Lehman commented at the press conference. "It asks that we not succumb to the temptation to use the tragic events that will inevitably take place in the future for one's own personal political gain."

"We need to have a reasonable, common sense discussion in this country about our crime and punishment policies," Lehman added. "Individuals on the campaign trail can either contribute to that process or hinder it. We would hope that they would refrain from politicizing crime and instead agree to enter into a rational debate about these very important public policy issues."

Stressing a need to examine the fiscal realities of existing criminal justice policies and the future cost, Lehman stated: "I honestly believe that, absent the din of political rhetoric and given an opportunity to learn about more cost effective sanctions, the public will come to understand the folly of today's policies and support a broader range of control, punishment and treatment responses to the offender."

Chase Riveland, Washington state's prison boss, was one of the many other high-level correctional officials who also supported the reform statement.
Compiled From: Criminal Justice Newsletter
Corrections Digest

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