Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Annual Conference of the National Sheriff's Association in Hartford, Connecticut

June 20, 1984

Mr. Chairman and ladies and gentlemen, I want to begin by saying how much I've looked forward to this chance to be with you today.

You know, in America's frontier days the sheriffs badge was the symbol of our nation's quest for law and justice. And today that badge still stands for commitment to the law and dedication to justice. Those of you in the Sheriffs Association are in the forefront of America's law enforcement community. All of you have firsthand experience with the problem of crime and lawlessness in our society. And the jobs you hold are dangerous and difficult ones. And believe me, I know.

I mean no irreverence when I mention that back in those days when I was doing television, I once played a sheriff, a western sheriff, in a TV drama. And the gist of the story was that the sheriff thought he could do the job without a gun. It was a 30-minute show. I was dead in 27 minutes. [Laughter]

So, may I say to all of you today what millions of Americans would say if they had the chance: Thank you for standing up for this nation's dream of personal freedom under the rule of law. Thank you for standing against those who would transform that dream into a nightmare of wrongdoing and lawlessness. And thank you for your service to your communities, to your country, and to the cause of law and justice.

Now, I know that many of you at this conference have served the public interest for lengthy periods of time, and that you lived through the grim years of the sixties and the seventies, when crime became an epidemic in America. In those decades, serious crime more than tripled. By the start of the eighties, crime was costing more than $10 billion in financial losses, touching 30 percent of America's homes, and taking the lives of almost 25,000 Americans a year.

Along with the rise in crime came a dangerous, widespread loss of faith by the American people in their criminal justice system. Eighty-five percent of Americans were saying the courts in their home areas weren't tough enough on criminals, and 75 percent were saying our criminal justice system just wasn't deterring crime.

Well, the reason was simple: The American criminal justice system was failing and failing badly. While our justice system was weighed down with excessive litigation and the courts were becoming arbiters of disputes they were never intended to deal with or to handle, the criminal justice system wasn't carrying out its most important function, the punishment of the guilty and protection of the innocent. In some jurisdictions and major cities, 3 percent or less of reported crimes were ending in prison terms for offenders. A small percentage of repeat offenders were responsible for a large percentage of crimes committed. One study showed that 23 percent of all male offenders accounted for 61 percent of all violent felony crimes.

This rise in crime, caused by a hardened criminal class, was fostered partly from a liberal social philosophy that too often called for lenient treatment of criminals. Because this misguided social philosophy saw man as primarily the creature of his material environment, it thought that through expensive government social programs it could change that environment and usher in a great new egalitarian utopia. And yet even while government was launching a rash of social engineering schemes in a vain attempt to remake man and society, it wasn't dealing with the most elementary social problems like rising crime.

Individual wrongdoing, they told us, was always caused by a lack of material goods, and underprivileged background, or poor socioeconomic conditions. And somehow, and I know you've heard it said—I heard it many times when I was Governor of California-it was society, not the individual, that was at fault when an act of violence or a crime was committed. Somehow, it wasn't the wrongdoer but all of us who were to blame.

Is it any wonder, then, that a new privileged class emerged in America, a class of repeat offenders and career criminals who thought they had the right to victimize their fellow citizens with impunity. And today we still pay the price for those years of liberal leniency—I mean the growth in the ranks of career criminals, criminals who are contemptuous of our way of justice, who do not believe they can be caught and, if they are caught, are confident that once the cases against them enter our legal system, the charges will be dropped, postponed, plea-bargained away, or lost in a maze of legal technicalities that make a mockery of our society's longstanding and commendable respect for civil liberties.

Well, at last we're making progress against these criminal predators in our midst. Reported crime dropped 4.3 percent in 1982. That was the first decline since 1977. And reported crimes for last year showed an even more remarkable 7-percent decrease, and this was the sharpest decrease since 1950. Indeed, it was the first time since 1950 that the serious crime index declined for 2 years in a row.

Now, I know there are a few people who want to attribute the encouraging downward trend in crime to a statistic—the fact that fewer members of the population are now in the crime-prone age group. Well, a coincidence isn't a correlation. The truth is that crime sometimes has risen with population growth and sometimes not; there's nothing historically inevitable about it. For example, between 1970 and 1982, the numbers in the crime-prone age group did drop slightly by about 1 percent, but serious crime went up 40 percent.

So, I think the real explanation for the recent drop in crime lies elsewhere than in mere statistics. To tell you the truth, that explanation is right here in front of me today. I don't think there's any question that America's law enforcement community and her courts are now carrying out a new mandate from the American people. Throughout the Nation, there's a new consensus on the crime issue, which you've helped form. It's a consensus that utterly rejects the counsels of leniency toward criminals and the liberal philosophy that fostered it.

The increase in citizen involvement in fighting crime through such initiatives as the Neighborhood Watch programs, spearheaded by the Sheriffs Association; the tough, new State statutes directed at repeat offenders; the widespread public outcry against leniency in our court system; and the sweeping new steps we've taken at the Federal level show that the years of the pseudo-intellectual apologies for crime are now over.

This morning in New Jersey I witnessed a grassroots movement against drunk driving, and I said to the group that the history of our country is a history of such movements, because Americans know that the purest form of law is one that springs directly from the people. It is this surge of public opinion that has brought us initiatives like those I've just described, which were long overdue. The American people today insist that judges and government officials recognize what common sense has always taught: that right and wrong matters; that individuals are responsible for their actions; that retribution must be swift and sure for those who prey on the innocent.

It's interesting, too, to note that common sense about crime is making its impact in the very field which once accounted for so much of the misguided advice about crime, that of the social sciences. The work of one psychologist, Stanley Samenow, for example, has won wide attention and confirms what many of us have been saying about the crime problem for many years: Choosing a career in crime is not the result of poverty or of an unhappy childhood or of a misunderstood adolescence; it's the result of a conscious, willful, selfish choice made by some who consider themselves above the law, who seek to exploit the hard work and, sometimes, the very lives of their fellow citizens.

One very important reason for the decrease in crime, then, is tied directly to this growing toughness toward criminal offenders. In the sixties, the probability of being arrested for a crime fell off dramatically. And in the sixties and most of the seventies, the probability of being sent to jail for a crime also fell off dramatically. But in the eighties, these two critical trends have been reversed. For the last few years, both the probability of arrest and the probability of incarceration have been increasing. So, crime is coming down because—and thank heaven for this—the public's demands for justice are finally being heeded. More criminals are being arrested; more career criminals are being put behind bars. And let's not forget that taking these career criminals off the streets doesn't just mean they're prevented from committing other crimes; it also means that their punishment acts as a strong deterrent to others who might choose a life of crime.

Now, obviously, those statistics are hardly worth celebrating. None of us likes the idea that our prison population is increasing. But we can and we must take legitimate satisfaction in the fact that more wrongdoers are being brought to justice—not out of a sense of vindictiveness or revenge, but because incarcerating these criminals means that fewer and fewer innocent Americans are being victimized by criminal wrongdoing.

I believe our administration's commitment to the war on crime has definitely helped to bring down the crime rate, and I assure you today, our commitment to fighting crime will continue to grow. Let me just briefly report to you on our efforts at the Federal level and why I think they've helped to complement your crucial work at the State and local levels.

First, from day one of our administration, the Attorney General and I have emphasized the importance of appointing responsible judges to the Federal bench, including the Supreme Court. I'm talking about judges who will not only uphold the rights of the accused but the rights of the innocent and the right of society to protect itself from criminal wrongdoers. I know all of us have been pleased by recent court decisions that show common sense once again returning to legal deliberations on criminal justice matters.

In addition to helping bring sanity back to the courtroom by appointing sound judges, we've also moved to strengthen cooperation with local and State law enforcement agencies. Our U.S.. attorneys have set up law enforcement coordination committees in every Federal district. And I'm proud that some of you are now serving on them. Through our surplus Federal property program, we've helped States and localities in expanding prison space. We've strengthened and broadened training for State and local law enforcement agents, both at the FBI Academy and at a Federal facility in Glynco, Georgia.

And today I'm pleased to announce two new initiatives to assist local law enforcement. First, the Department of Justice is establishing with the FBI a new National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, whose mission will be to work with law enforcement agencies to identify and track repeat killers, the so-called serial killers who prey on innocent citizens. This means the latest computerized technology for detective work is moving from the research phase to the operational phase.

And second, in order to help eliminate a threat to the lives of America's sheriffs and policemen, legislation was introduced last week to ban the manufacture and importation of bullets designed to penetrate the soft-body armor worn by law enforcement officers. We worked hard on that one, and in the end, we produced a bill which has broad bipartisan and increasing support. I expect to be signing a cop-killer bullet bill before this Congress adjourns.

Our third major effort against crime has been a full-scale offensive against illegal drug trafficking. For the first time, we brought the FBI into this fight. We've increased our law enforcement budget by 50 percent and added 1,768 new investigators and prosecutors, most of this as a result of our efforts in drug-related fields. Our highly successful South Florida Interdiction Task Force has led to the establishment of investigative task forces in 12 other regions throughout the country. And those 12 task forces have already initiated some 620 cases and indicted more than 2,600 individuals. And 140 of these indictments have been under the new "Drug Kingpin" law, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

And fourth, we've declared war on organized crime in America. I'm proud to tell you that organized crime convictions are up from 515 in fiscal '81 to 1,331 in 1983. We're getting longer prison sentences and, for the first time, making a serious effort to confiscate the financial assets of the mobsters. Our new organized crime commission has begun its investigation of the structure of the mob today in America, its money-laundering techniques. And its work will be greatly broadened when it receives subpoena powers in this session of the Congress.

I repeat what I've said before: We have it within our power to shatter the regional and national syndicates that make up organized crime in America. This administration seeks no negotiated settlement, no detente with the mob. Our goal is to cripple their organization, dry up their profits, and put their members behind bars where they belong. In this effort, State and local law enforcement must play a critical role. For only when the mob is being hurt at the local level, when the revenue from illegal gambling, pornography, drug pushing, and other kinds of racketeering is dried up will the mob be permanently put out of business.

And fifth, through a series of Presidential task forces, we've brought much needed attention to critical law enforcement problems. Our task force on violent crime in 1981 led to a widespread series of proposed reforms, most of which have now been implemented. Similarly, we've appointed a Task Force on Family Violence, a problem that's been badly in need of full national airing for many years.

And sixth, this administration has brought long-overdue attention to the plight of the victims of crime. I was sure—I know that this is an area of special interest to all of you, and I commend you on the special attention you've been paying this week to ways of aiding victims of crime. Many of you have seen our Victims of Crime Task Force report, and you've heard Assistant Attorney General Lois Herrington report on how our administration has implemented many of the commission's recommendations. Well, we're especially proud that our victims of crime assistance act is now approaching passage in the Senate. This is an act that will assist the States in helping compensate the victims of crime, but—and this is very importantly-this assistance will be paid for by criminal fines, not by hard-earned tax dollars.

The mention of this legislation brings me to the seventh and final point about this administration's crime program, our all-out legislative effort to get those in Federal law enforcement the tools they need to deal with the criminal threat. We've already scored some important breakthroughs. We've succeeded in modifying tax laws that made it difficult for the IRS to assist in organized crime and drug trafficking investigations. We've changed the posse comitatus law to permit the military to assist us in cracking down on the drug smuggling. And, as I just mentioned, we're pushing ahead with victims of crime legislation.

But our largest and most important initiative remains where it's been for the last 3 years—becalmed in the House of Representatives. This vital crime package includes bills calling for bail reform, tougher sentencing, justice assistance to States and localities, improvement in the exclusionary rule and the insanity defense, and major reforms affecting drug trafficking, prison crowding, capital punishment, and forfeiture. All of these reforms are badly needed and constitutionally sound. In fact, our core crime package has already passed the Senate once by a vote of 91 to 1, but in the House of Representatives the liberal leadership keeps it bottled up in committee. One member of the Judiciary Committee there even claimed the package was "dead on arrival."

Well, forgive me, but those who are holding this up in the House are out of touch with reality, and they're out of touch with the American people. This is a perfect example of how Americans are forced to suffer ill effects of crime because too many of our political leaders stick to old, discredited, liberal illusions about crime.

Americans overwhelmingly favor changes in the exclusionary rule, the insanity defense, the reinstitution of capital punishment, and the tightening up of parole and bail procedures. And of all places the people's voice deserves to be heard, it is in the House of Representatives. So, today I'm asking you to continue to use your influence with your elected representatives. Let them know that you're tired of waiting and that, at a very minimum, the liberal leadership in the House owes the American people a floor debate and vote out in the open on this crime package.

Now, if the Members of the House feel our package is unwise legislation, let them have the courage to stop hiding behind parliamentary maneuvers and say so publicly. Let them vote against these measures in full view of the people, and let them explain what gives them the right to ignore the will of the people. This they should have the courage to do.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, during the last 3 1/2 years this administration has faced the serious problems of rebuilding America's economic strength here at home and restoring our prestige and stature abroad. Today we're in the midst of a sound and strong economic expansion, and America's national security has been restored and enhanced. But I also believe that the record I've just presented to you shows that, while this administration was coping with the crises of our economy and our national security, we were also making great efforts to help you and all our fellow citizens deal with the problem of crime in American society.

I believe I can say that in doing this, all of us sought only to speak for a new consensus in American politics—a consensus that said government had involved itself in areas where it was neither competent nor needed, while it had wrongly ignored its traditional and most fundamental obligation: the maintenance of public order and the preservation of public tranquillity.

Today the fight against crime continues, but for the first time in years, we can say that we're starting to make headway. There's still a long way to go; there still is much to do. But on behalf of all America, I want to thank all of you again for all that you are doing to make possible a safer society. And I pledge to you my continued support, even as I seek your assistance in continuing to eradicate the drug menace, fight organized crime, make our streets and homes safe again, and return America to the days of respect for the law and the rights of the innocent.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 2 p.m. in the main ballroom at the Park View Hilton Hotel. He was introduced by Richard Elrod, president of the association.

Following his remarks, the President returned to Washington, DC.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Annual Conference of the National Sheriff's Association in Hartford, Connecticut Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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