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Crime Bill Antics

CRIME belongs on the political agenda this year. The wanton violence of much crime in the United States, and the country's burgeoning prison population - particularly of young black and Hispanic men - point to deep-seated problems.

Candidates could discuss ways of dealing with these problems through both strengthened law enforcement and efforts to bolster family structures and economic opportunity.

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Instead, they are likely to revert to the same old ideological battles over capital punishment, gun control, and the so-called exclusionary rule.

Those battle lines are currently being redrawn in Congress, as Democrats prepare to reintroduce a crime bill that withered last November under a veto threat from President Bush.

The Democrats welded together the "Brady Bill," which requires a five-day waiting period for would-be handgun purchasers, some toughening of the rules governing habeas corpus appeals by death-row inmates, allowance for "good faith" exceptions to the exclusionary rule when police have a search warrant, and - to show they won't be outdone - extension of the death penalty to 52 federal crimes.

In this package Republicans see "a pro-criminal bill," to quote South Carolina's Sen. Strom Thurmond. Add the Bush proposals to greatly weaken protections against searches by policemen who haven't bothered to get a warrant and to much more sharply restrict habeas corpus, Republicans say, and you have an "anticrime" package. With these elements restored, the president has said he will even go along with the Brady Bill.

But he probably won't have to follow through on that pledge - to the relief of the gun lobby. It appears that in Congress, as on the campaign trail, the crime issue is being played primarily for political advantage. Passage of a bill isn't likely.

Lost in all this are the useful things that might be done to start addressing the tragedy of rampant crime. Ideas like "community policing," which encourages closer cooperation between police and the people they protect, could be fostered and endorsed. Work and vocational training programs in prisons, which have been shown to cut recidivism rates, could be given more resources.

The few billion dollars included in various versions of the federal crime bill to aid local law enforcement might even be made available.

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That would be a lot more reassuring to city-dwelling Americans who have experienced muggings or lost children to errant bullets than another descent into demagogy.

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