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Candidates scramble to win support from law enforcement

It's too bad we can't resurrect Ted Bundy and execute him all over again.

Ted is the only thing missing from this year's campaign debate as the candidates for governor tussle over who will electrocute the most prisoners or who can stand in front of the most badges.

They might as well sing "I can execute more people than you can execute" or "I can put more people in prison than you can."

Never has the badge been so visible in campaign commercials. Supporters of casino gambling are even getting in on the act with a commercial that is filled with endorsements from former lawmen and a badge-covered brochure mailed to thousands of voters.

It's like all of the candidates are playing Monopoly, but instead of money they are collecting as many badges as possible. Gov. Lawton Chiles and Republican challenger Jeb Bush are vying to see who can claim the most endorsements from law enforcement officials.

Forgive the members of the state's law enforcement community if they are a little skeptical. They have become accustomed to politicians who need them each election year and can't quite remember their names when it comes time to prepare budgets.

Given the rhetoric, it might surprise Floridians to know that slightly more than 5 percent of the state's $38.6-billion budget goes to run the criminal justice system and operate prisons.

Prosecutors and public defenders struggle along with so little money that they are not much more than a training ground for attorneys looking for a little courtroom experience, and there is never enough money to pay good salaries to state lawmen. The Florida Highway Patrol spends about $50,000 to train a new officer only to lose him or her to a local agency that pays higher salaries.

It might also surprise you to take a close look at some of the rhetoric about serving time in prisons. Yes, it's true that inmates are now serving a higher percentage of their sentences. But prosecutors around the state are finding out that the sentences that can be given to some defendants are much shorter due to a change in the sentencing guidelines approved by the governor and legislature earlier this year.

For example, the inmate that might have been sentenced to 40 years in prison a decade ago, would have gotten 20 years for crimes committed last year, but would only get a 5 year sentence for crimes committed after July 1, 1994. Many law enforcement officials worry that the system is now set up so that some defendants have to commit far too many crimes before they see the inside of a prison cell.

Burglaries have become so common and so lightly punished that some police agencies have stopped wasting their time going to the scene of the crime. They just take the report on the phone and make no attempt to find the culprits. Why should they spend time investigating a crime that will result in little or no punishment when there are plenty of violent crimes to keep them busy.

And community control officers _ the folks who are supposed to make sure that those who don't go to jail are at home where they belong _ are suffering from new budget constraints which limit the number of miles they can drive each month.

As a result, a person sentenced to house arrest need not fear being caught if his probation officer has very far to travel.

Gov. Chiles once emphasized his love of programs that provide prenatal care and early childhood intervention. Now he's standing on the steps of the Capitol with all the law enforcement officers he can collect and bragging about how many people he has locked up.

Bush wants to build more and more prisons and stuff more inmates into the prisons we already have.

Even U.S. Sen. Connie Mack and some members of Congress are on television talking about how much they want to help Floridians fight crime.

It won't surprise me if all the candidates climb into uniform and get their own badges before election day rolls around.

Maybe we should just toss out all the politicians and hire more cops.

Lucy Morgan is associate editor and Tallahassee bureau chief for the Times.