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Cries Against Crime Lead to Proposal For Regional Prisons

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THE halls of Congress echo these days with emotional words from lawmakers who vow to get tough on violent criminals. They demand:

``Jail, not bail.''

``Lock 'em up and throw away the key.''

``Three strikes and you're out.''

``Two strikes and you're out.''

``One strike and you're in.''

Why all the anger? And what can be done? Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida says crime has gotten so bad, and punishment so uncertain, that Washington must join the states in a united effort against criminals.

Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California notes that murderers in the United States typically get prison sentences of 15 years, but are back walking the streets in only 5 1/2. Out of 4,000 recent murders, ``Forty percent were committed by people who were released early from prison,'' he says. Since Thanksgiving, 30,000 of the felons who were convicted of violent crime ``received no prison time at all,'' he says.

Responding to complaints that state prisons are ``revolving doors,'' even for the most violent criminals, Congress is examining a number of potential solutions. These include mandatory sentences for violent criminals and life imprisonment for repeat violent offenders.

One controversial concept, proposed by Representative McCollum, calls for the federal government to build and run regional prisons, each holding 2,500 convicts, to ease state prison overcrowding.

The cost: $6 billion, half from Washington, half from the states.

The Senate-passed crime bill contains a similar provision, though it differs somewhat, including the funding provision.

McCollum's idea has several purposes, one of which is to expand a prison system which now sets thousands of violent criminals free because of overcrowding.

The California prison system, for example, currently has packed 120,000 felons into 50,000 cells. Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, says the crowding is so serious that 79 percent of convicted felons never spend time behind bars.

However, while Congress appears ready to lock up more criminals, McCollum's proposal has run into significant opposition from several quarters, including the White House.

Governors and state legislatures also are cool to the idea because McCollum's offer comes with a price.

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