Vice President Gore today listened to victims of crime tell of their painful experience with the legal system and promised that their rights would be protected by a constitutional amendment he is proposing.
"No one should have to go through what you experienced in the aftermath of the crime," Gore told a group assembled for a forum at Rhodes College here.
Without new rights guaranteeing them the opportunity to testify at sentencing and parole proceedings, along with other procedural protections, Gore said, victims of rape, robbery and other crimes are treated as "an afterthought instead of as a central participant, deserving of protections just as much as those accused of committing the crime against you."
Today's event was the first in a series this week at which Gore will focus on anti-crime themes such as gun control and expanded community policing. Reinforcing the message, the Democratic National Committee has been airing an ad that pictures Gore with uniformed police officers.
Republicans contended that Gore now is focusing on crime because Texas Gov. George W. Bush is running far ahead among voters who say it is a priority. "If this works, it should help Gore with another problem group, white men," a GOP operative said, noting that white men are among those strongly supportive of tough-on-crime policies.
As the victims told Gore their stories, he nodded sympathetically, sometimes saying "God bless you" at the conclusion. He hugged Jodie Gaines Johnson, who had been held hostage, starved and repeatedly raped for five days by three men. She told Gore that victims should be notified of any change of legal status involving their assailants. "I want to know when they're paroled," she said. "I have four kids and I don't want to be in the grocery store and run into one of them because I'm not that strong."
Gore's proposed constitutional amendment, which is similar to one that was introduced by Sens. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) but rejected, would give victims the right to be heard on sentencing; to be notified if a prisoner is released or escapes; to have their safety considered in determining probation or parole; and to receive restitution from the assailant.
In addition, Gore said he supports legislation protecting victims from any threat of being fired when they attend legal proceedings. He said he supports rewriting provisions of the Violence Against Women Act that had been ruled unconstitutional and that he backs hate-crime legislation calling for tough sentences for criminals who target victims by race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
"Crime" voters--roughly 8 to 10 percent of voters who say they will place the highest priority on taking action against crime when making decisions on Election Day--are overwhelmingly supportive of Bush, according to Democratic and GOP pollsters. President Clinton, in 1992 and 1996, was able to reduce significantly the normal Republican advantage among these voters. Bush spent the day in the Midwest, visiting a community social services agency in Milwaukee and addressing the annual convention of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Chicago. His aides, meanwhile, fired back at Gore on the crime issue, accusing the Clinton administration of blocking victims' rights legislation in the Senate.
Bush campaign officials quoted from a Justice Department letter opposing the legislation that said "our first concern has been that the Kyl-Feinstein resolution lacks an express provision preserving the rights of the accused." The Bush campaign characterized this as "Clinton-Gore put criminals' rights before victims' rights."
At Faith Works in Milwaukee, Bush reiterated his support for faith-based local social service agencies and promised to provide $185 million over five years in grants to such organizations for programs to strengthen the role of fathers. He said he was confident the government could support faith-based organizations and programs and still maintain the separation of church and state. "There is not intent to fund religion," he said.
Bush was introduced at the convention of state legislators by Texas House Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney, a Democrat who said that because the office of Texas governor is constitutionally weak "his success is more determined by personality than the exercise of power."
Bush used the occasion to decry partisan "gridlock" in Washington and promise to "restore civility on the national level."
"There's too much argument in Washington and not enough discussion," he said, returning to one of his favorite themes. "There's too much polling and focus groups and not enough deciding. There's too much needless division and not enough shared accomplishment. I intend to change the attitude in Washington."
But Bush stumbled in attempting to praise Congress for its recent enactment of legislation to repeal the estate tax, a measure that Clinton has promised to veto. He said the bill "is part of the solution to relieve urban sprawl" because farmers would not be forced to sell their land to developers to pay estate taxes. "I would sign the death tax," Bush said.
The Bush campaign also released the Texas governor's travel schedule on his way to the Republican National Convention, which begins July 31 in Philadelphia. Bush will make stops in 10 cities in six states that Clinton carried in his two presidential campaigns.
Bush will leave Austin on July 28 and is scheduled to stop in Springdale, Ark., Joplin, Mo., Owensboro, Louisville and Covington, Ky., Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, Charleston, W.Va., and Harrisburg, Pa. Bush is due to arrive in Philadelphia on Aug. 2 and will be formally nominated by the convention delegates that night.
Edsall reported from Memphis; Walsh from Chicago.