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Jeff Greenfield: Crime disappears as a political issue

Greenfield comments on how crime has disappeared as an issue in the presidential campaign. 

JEFF GREENFIELD: As you’ve heard, one of the reasons why the idea of prison alternatives has caught on across the political spectrum is that the crime rate in the United States has been dropping over the last two decades. But there’s another way to measure that fact: by the virtual disappearance of crime as a national political issue. In the decade of the 1960s, the violent crime rate more than doubled in America. And that, along with upheavals on campuses and in urban centers, helped propel what had been a local issue into the national political spotlight. In 1968, Richard Nixon made it a key theme in his campaign.

Twenty years later, as the crime rate kept rising, Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign was seriously, perhaps fatally damaged by the “Willie Horton” story.  Horton, a convicted  murderer, terrorized a couple while out on a weekend release program that Governor Dukakis had continued.  Dukakis’ opposition to the death penalty was also a liability.

That may be why President Bill Clinton made sure to surround himself, often, with an army of men and women in blue–and to back capital punishment.

Now, for whatever reasons, longer sentences for career criminals, demographics, the easing of the crack epidemic — the national violent crime rate is at a 30-year low.  In New York, the crime rate is a little more than a fourth of what it was 20 years ago. The result? You just don’t hear much about crime anymore from people running for president. There are other reasons, of course. Economic security and international security have replaced personal security on the list of top concerns. But still, when it comes to the lack of political talk about crime, no news is good news.