The work of seven Congresses -- 14 years of arduous negotiations -- lies behind legislation in the House and Senate to reform the nation's jumble of 3, 000 conflicting, outdated criminal laws. Time is rapidly running out for Congress to put some order into the US criminal code in its current legislative session. It would be a pity if a number of last-minute, highly controversial amendments were to keep Congree from what would be a truly historic achievement -- a complete overhaul and modernization of the nation's unwieldy criminal laws.
No one disputes the need to abolish such anachronistic statutes as the one, for instance, that makes it a crime to detain a govvernment carrier pigeon. But a number of highly controversial issues have been raised by the proposed changes. Some have been addressed and compromises worked out; others have been put off to be taken up individually at another time in an effort to keep the entire reform package from being scuttled. The final bills that have emerged will not entirely please either hard-line law-and-order advocates or civil libertarians. But they do go a long way toward reorganizing and updating the criminal statutes. They help clarify federal and state criminal offenses. They address for the first time several white-collar crimes.
The bills would also extend civil rights penalties to include sex discrimination. They offer new protection of the electoral process against political "dirty tricks" and provide a stronger shield for "whistle blowers" in government. However, one bail provision in the Senate bill that ought to be dropped makes it too easy for judges to jail a defendant if the judge is simply of the opinion he may be dangerous. Civil libertarians call this a form of preventive detention.
For the most part, the bills do represent a significant start toward reform. After coming this far, however, there is now the danger that congressional leaders will be tempted to postpone such a huge and controversial bill this late in a presidential election year. But they should not let up now.
Several lawmakers are proposing to add controversial amendments to the legislation that ought to be resisted. One would reestablish the death penalty for certain federal crimes. Another would further water down already weak federal gun controls. Still another would take up the the thorny matter of determining where community standards in obscenity cases should be set.
Attaching these to the proposed legislation is almost certain to prompt extended debate and, in the process, doom chances of passage this year. If the criminal code reforms fail to make it through this session, it seems unlikely that the next Congress, without some key proponents of reform, will be anxious to try again. Most of the existing differences between the House and Senate versions can probably be worked out in conference -- if these highly emotional issues are deleted, to be taken up separately at another time. Congress is too close to reforming the criminal code to allow such last-minute obstacles to block it now.