New anticrime plan breaks with past, emphasizes punishment, public safety
The newest federal report on crime released this week shows just how much, in the words of a 1960s song, "the times, they are a changin'." Little more than a decade ago an earlier commission, headed by then Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois, produced a thick study on crime. It probed deep into the worried soul of America trying to find the causes and solutions to rioting in the big cities.
"Frustrated hopes," powerlessness, and poverty had wrought the violence, concluded the Kerner Commission. And better job training, schools, and housing would help end it.
That was in 1968. This week a new Task Force on Violent Crime, co-chaired by another Illinois governor, unveiled its final report. And its some 200 pages give little space either to causes or massive cures. Instead the focus is on punishing crime and promoting public safety by keeping lawbreakers off the streets.
The task force, co-chaired by Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson and former Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, reports that "millions of our fellow citizens are being held hostage by their fear of crime and violence." The words echoed remarks made by US Chief Justice Warren E. Burger who earlier this year called on the nation to launch a crusade against escalating violent crime.
In its recommendations, the task force calls for spending $2 billion to build more prisons, establishing guidelines to make sentences more uniform, requiring inmates to complete their full terms, and permitting prosecutors to use criminal evidence even if police obtained it illegally, so long as the illegality was unintentional and the officers had acted in good faith to uphold the constitutional ban against "unreasonable searches and seizures."
Most controversial are a plan for preventive detention of accused persons before trial and a proposal to require a waiting period before a person can buy a handgun.
Preventive detention would permit federal judges to hold people without bail if they are "found by clear and convincing evidence to be dangerous," or if they had a past record of committing serious crimes while on pretrial release.
Bruce J. Ennis, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union , calls the plan outrageous."
"It turns the presumption of innocene entirely on its end," he says, by locking up arrested people because of "what they might do in the future."
Mr. Ennis charges that overall the task force is offering a "Band-aid reform" which will not reduce crime but will cut back on constitutional rights.
The task force has taken on the powerful National Rifle Association in its recommendation that a handgun purchase be made only after a waiting period. The delay would allow for a record check to prevent sales to people legally barred from buying firearms.
Pete Shields, gun control activist and founder of Hand- gun Control Inc., says he is "delighted" with the proposal. He adds that President Reagan, "a hunter and a conservative," is in a strong position to push for this form of control.
Now that the five-month- old taks force has completed its work, observers are already wondering whether this report will make a dent in the problem.
"American has always had a very high crime rate," according to Norval Morris, a University of Chicago law professor, who points to causes ranging from a history of fierce independence to the role of handguns and race relations.
Before the taks force released its study, Mr. Morris remarked that Americans do not lack knowledge of the crime problem and ways to deal with it, "but I really don't think the people care when it comes to budgets and election day." The country has lacked the will to curb crime, he said.