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Crime code: a sensible pause

In setting up a complicated system of ''checks and balances'' within the American governmental system, the Founding Fathers were in part seeking to prevent adoption of ill-considered or fractious legislation. That such a process of legislative stalemate most certainly works is more than illustrated by the apparent scuttling this week of legislation to revise the US criminal code.

It should first be conceded that the United States badly needs a uniform and modern criminal code. Federal criminal law is currently a hodgepodge of various statutes and legal decisions. Lawmakers have spent some 16 years hammering together a new criminal code that would establish uniform national standards in many areas, including sentencing, bail, and categories of crimes. The 424-page bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the subject of controvery in that chamber this week would totally revise the federal criminal code.

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Revision and uniformity of standards, however, are not enough to ensure good legislation, especially in such a complex and vital area as criminal law. Liberals, including the American Civil Liberties Union, faulted the Senate bill for being a dangerous intrusion on civil liberties. Conservatives argued that the bill was too soft on crime.

It would probably be unrealistic to think that a piece of legislation so fraught with political emotion could be subjected to only the most dispassionate and professional assessment. Yet cool deliberation is what is needed on such a vital subject. The bulk of the Senate bill, thanks to careful work by the Judiciary Committee, is essentially technical and noncontroversial in nature. But, on the other hand, should the Senate adopt a bill which among other ''reforms'' provides for preventive detention and at the same time scraps the requirement that ''intent'' be proven in cases of conspiracy? And what about provisions that might make executives subject to murder charges in situations where deaths can be attributed to corporate decisions?

Sixteen years of seeking to write a new federal criminal code is too long. But until a satisfactory consensus can be reached on such a crucial subject, another year or so of deliberation may not be unwise.

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