Flexibility in Fighting Crime

February 02, 1994

First the mayors then the governors -- both in Washington for their mid-winter conventions -- talked crime with President Clinton.

They want help but they don't want the financial burden and policy straitjacket that often go with federal government attempts to help state and local governments.

They also don't want president and Congress telling them what to do about such things as sentencing. This came up in a discussion between the president and representatives of the National Governors' Association of one of the crime bills now before Congress. It provides for new regional federal prisons. States could send their overflow from overcrowded prisons to these. Apparently at no cost -- if they accept tough federal sentencing guidelines. That's a big if. It is, in fact, a cost. In many states, keeping prisoners in for much longer than they now are kept would result in a need for more state prisons than they can afford to build.

There is also legislation before Congress that could add anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 law enforcement personnel of one kind or another to state and local forces, largely at federal expense. Or so the advocates of the legislation like to say. The U.S. Conference of Mayors endorses the idea -- in principle. But many mayors note that here again the federal government would be imposing new rules and new costs on city governments.

Under the formula Congress wants to apply, the federal share of the expense would be 75 percent the first two or three years, then decline to zero in two or three more years. Many localities, especially some with very high crime rates, could barely afford the 25 percent, much less the eventual 100 percent. Furthermore the congressional approach would limit the amount a city could get per officer.

That means smaller towns in low-cost regions would fare much better than cities like, say, Baltimore. Also faring better would be relatively well-off cities -- and counties -- which could afford to keep the new officers on the force after the federal funds run out.

What the mayors really want and need in this legislation is "maximum flexibility." For example, the right to use federal aid for equipment and training, which would pay dividends long after Washington's largess dries up.

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