North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a telegenic lawyer with presidential aspirations, has been accused of being an empty suit -- a nice smile, but no political convictions. As Edwards begins to position himself for the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 and looks for issues to make his own, he has latched onto a perennial favorite of political demagogues: the crime issue.
At a July 16 speech before students at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, Edwards called for a federal effort to tighten parole and probation systems in the states, which he called "overburdened, understaffed, inconsistent, and almost completely unsuccessful."
Edwards said early-release programs in state prisons were "a festering problem" and urged much more frequent drug testing of the nation's 4.5 million parolees and probationers. Those found to be using drugs should be punished swiftly and automatically, he said.
"Anyone who has ever lost a loved one to a street thug or sexual predator knows that violent crime can be the terrorism of everyday life," he said, failing to acknowledge that at least 450,000 prisoners and more than a million probationers and parolees are nonviolent drug offenders.
Edwards also attempted to score political points by portraying his tough-on-crime stance as somehow favoring poor communities, which bear the brunt of both the social pathologies surrounding the black market in drugs and enforcement efforts designed to stop drug sales and use. "The administration acts as though cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans is more important than cutting crime in the very poorest communities," said Edwards.
It wasn't all bad. Edwards also called for more literacy and rehabilitation programs for prisoners and for a stronger effort to help ex-convicts fit back into society. "We know that when somebody leaves jail, giving him a sweat suit and sending him to the bus station in the dead of night is not the way to give him a fresh start," he said.
But if Edwards wants to leave the empty suit image behind, he still has a ways to go. During a question and answer session after the speech, one student asked Edwards whether he would support repealing the Higher Education Act's ban on providing financial aid to drug offenders.
"I don't know the answer to that one of the top of my head," said Edwards. "I'll have to think about it."