There Ought to Be a Law Against Crime-Bill Delinquents

I don't know from nothin' about the crime bill. Didn't like it, didn't dislike it, didn't follow it, didn't cry when it got ambushed last week. Don't care if they bring it back or not.

When it comes to the national debate on crime, you see more bad acting than at a grade school Christmas play. The big difference is, the kids are cute and they don't charge you anything.

The thespians in Congress, however, are not beyond such shame. They recite over and over how serious they are about crime, but then proceed to turn it into farce.

And they wonder why we're cynical.

My own little theory, held for some time now, is that no one is really as serious about crime as they say. We're all horrified by the splashy crime that we read or hear about, but for many of us crime remains an abstraction. We know that it can happen to any of us, but the truth is, it seldom does.

The most recent FBI figures show that the overall crime rate dropped 4% between 1991 and 1992, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Violent crimes declined negligibly, but property crimes dropped more significantly, about 4.6%. Believe it or not, the murder rate is lower than it was in 1990. And while no one is suggesting that we all feel safe and secure, the chances that any of us will be victimized by violent crime are less than 1 in 100.

Whether all that has any bearing on Congress, who knows. But you'd think that if its members were as fired up about crime as their public statements would suggest, they'd pass almost anything.

Instead, the crime bill went up in a puff of smoke before it even got to a House vote.

The beauty of this year's bill was that it contained so many disparate elements that everybody could find something they liked. It put more cops on the street and more money into prevention. It built new prisons and included "three strikes and you're out" provisions.

As it turned out, there was so much stuff in the bill that it gave everybody a chance to find something they didn't like, upon which they could hang a naysaying vote.

The ultimate cynicism about the bogus war on crime is that an odd coalition formed to derail the bill. Some Republicans said it included too much needless spending, while others caved in to the National Rifle Assn. because it opposed the provision that would ban assault weapons. Some Democrats opposed it because it expanded the categories of crimes eligible for the death penalty. Others, no doubt, voted against it just because they oppose whatever President Clinton supports. Or, others probably wanted to teach the President a lesson for other slights he's committed against them. That's how serious they are about fighting crime.

And President Clinton is probably part of the cynic's scenario too. He thought he had a slam-dunk crime bill that he could call his own and use as political cachet.

You're darn right that when it comes to talk about crime, I'm suspicious of everybody.

You can bet that every nay vote came from someone who has lamented the rampant crime in society. Yet all the no voters, including the entire Orange County delegation, were willing to set those fears aside and find a reason to oppose the bill.

I may be less aggrieved about the bill's demise than the average voter, because I tuned out to the "law and order" cry somewhere during the Nixon-Agnew Administration. I can't remember for sure if it was after Spiro Agnew was caught by the Justice Department taking bribes and before a grand jury wanted to indict Nixon over Watergate, or the other way around--but, anyway, their plaintive cries for law and order left me a tad cold.

Every President introduces a crime bill and every candidate rails against crime, as the California governor's race is showing us in dreary detail. Everyone is against crime, but in our lifetimes, no one has done anything about it.

The most humane thing for the safety of the republic would be to focus on preventing crime, but you know where that argument has gone over the last generation or so. So, the argument shifts to more police and more prisons, but no one really wants to pay for them.

Perhaps it's best to keep a sense of humor about crime. After all, it is the classic dog-and-pony show.

Be assured, that legislators and candidates will keep talking about it and introducing bills that either get watered down or killed by the other side. Part of it is sport, but it's also because no one really knows what to do about crime, anyway.

For the moment, President Clinton is talking angrily about trying to revive the bill that got blindsided.

And why not? They know we just eat this stuff up.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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