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Ridge's Record on Crime and Punishment


Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania, has been given the job by President Bush of protecting the nation's homeland security. As he and Attorney General John Ashcroft start using the nation's new policing laws to fight terrorism, it's important that people be made aware of Ridge's record on crime and punishment -- because it's controversial and suggests what we're likely to see in the future.

Tom Ridge was an aggressive law-and-order governor from the start. He was elected in 1993 on a campaign stressing fighting crime. He sought and won new anti-crime laws early on, though some were ruled unconstitutional. During his two terms, Ridge pursued a get-tough agenda using all the police-related branches of state government. He's had little patience for critics, from death penalty opponents to civil libertarians.

Ridge, a Vietnam veteran, Harvard-trained lawyer and former congressman, was first elected Governor in a campaign that used political ads modeled on the Willie Horton ads by then-candidate George Bush's supporters in 1988. The ads were controversial because in Congress, he was seen as a moderate, a pro-choice Republican with an independent streak.

But his first gubernatorial campaign focused on criminal justice reform. He capitalized on the tragic case of Reginald McFadden, a commuted murderer who went on a killing spree in New York shortly after his release. His Democratic opponent, former Lt. Gov. Mark Single, voted for McFadden's release while on the state Pardons Board -- hence the Horton-style ads.

Ridge also made juvenile justice a theme of his campaign. He urged that all juveniles, not just those accused of murder, be tried as adults and do adult time in adult prisons.

After his well-financed campaign was successful and he became governor, he began his first term with a special legislative session focusing entirely on crime. A flurry of bills were enacted, including a 'Megan's Law' bill, a 'three-strikes' bill, and a bill revising the Pardons Board. He stepped up the war on drugs, limited parole releases, and imposed fees on prisoners for medical services and drug testing. The Megan's Law and three strikes law were later declared unconstitutional as placing the burden of proof inappropriately on the defendants.

Ridge also presided over the first state execution since 1960. Three so-called volunteers -- inmates who had given up their appeals -- were executed, and he signed dozens of death warrants. Ridge implemented many new policies in the prison system, focusing on drug and alcohol interdiction. Drug-testing, ion-scanning machines, DNA testing and prison shakedowns became commonplace.

After a Pennsylvania parolee, Bobby 'Mudman' Simon, murdered a police officer in New Jersey, he [Ridge] led a crackdown on parole. He reversed a three-to-one ratio of granting parole to a three-to-one ratio against granting it. After the anticipated spike in prison population, policies were eased almost back to pre-Mudman levels. During his last years, prison populations actually fell for the first time in almost 20 years.

While some of Ridge's initiatives were declared unconstitutional or had debatable results, his impact on juvenile justice is significant. Ridge wanted juveniles treated like adult offenders, and as a result Pennsylvania has opened its first adult prison comprised largely of juveniles.

Tom Ridge's treatment of political protesters is also noteworthy. State police treated death penalty opponents very harshly during the governor's conference in State College in 2000. Similarly, state police used questionable surveillance tactics, including pre-emptive strikes against protest headquarters during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 2000. City prosecutors failed to sustain most of the almost 500 criminal charges in subsequent court proceedings that resulted from the convention demonstrations.

Ridge's use of a Malden Institute report to justify the raid on the R2K [Republican Convention 2000] protesters was particularly troubling. This ultra-right wing think tank used innuendo, lies and rumor in its propaganda-filled manifesto, suggesting that the global protest movement was funded by rubles smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. The raid, prior to the actual protest, raised many troubling legal questions, most notably prior restraint of First Amendment rights.

In summary, Ridge governed from the middle of the political road, but maintained a strong law-and-order stance. Publicly, he told people what they wanted to hear. Privately Ridge tempered many of his goals. But in fighting crime he had extended the edge of the legal envelope -- and then pushed it.

The stakes in U.S. homeland security are much higher than anything Ridge faced as governor of Pennsylvania. Congress has passed new laws giving Ridge untested new power. His record should serve as a caution to anyone who cares about privacy rights, civil liberties and the conduct of the criminal justice system.

Angus Love is an attorney with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and has been a longtime advocate for improved prison conditions in the state.

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