Crime bill reflects politics of 1984
The money and people the federal government is devoting to fighting crime have increased dramatically in the last three years, and the crime rate has sharply declined.
Yet the scales of criminal justice remain tilted heavily in favor of the rights of criminals and against those of law-abiding citizens.
The need for legislative reform has been recognized by the Senate in its approval of a vast array of reforms to our ability to fight crime. These include proposals affecting bail, sentencing, forfeiture, drug trafficking and organized crime, justice assistance to state and local governments, and prison crowding. These reforms would remove loopholes and imbalances from our federal laws, which have allowed criminals who ought to be in jail to prey upon the public.
Three needed legislative reforms - on capital punishment, insanity defense, and the exclusionary rule - are still widely misunderstood.
The capital-punishment bill is designed to establish constitutional procedures for the imposition of the death penalty for certain extreme and violent federal crimes. Its practical effect would be to restore the possibility of capital punishment under federal law for aggravated offenses of homicide, treason, espionage, and the attempted murder of the president.
The desire of the American people to exact a just and proportionate punishment is evidenced by public opinion polls and by the enactment of capital-punishment legislation in 37 states. The Supreme Court's approval of these procedurally sound statutes demonstrates the weakness of so-called constitutional arguments against the death penalty.
The need to reform the insanity defense, although spurred by public outcry over the acquittal of John Hinckley, has long been recognized by the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Medical Association.
Accordingly, one section in the current bill would require the defendant to prove insanity rather than the prosecution to prove him sane. Another section would eliminate the unworkable portion of the current two-part test for insanity , thus restricting the defense to those defendants who are genuinely mentally ill. The unworkable part of the test confronts courts and juries with the nearly impossible task of distinguishing between persons who are unable to control their conduct and those who are merely unwilling to do so. As the American Psychiatric Association noted recently, the ''line between an irresistible impulse and an impulse not resisted is probably no sharper than that between twilight and dusk.''
The exclusionary rule has frequently prohibited courts from accepting all relevant evidence in a criminal trial, and has placed impossible burdens on the police. Fortunately, some reform is underway. In the Leon and Sheppard decisions the Supreme Court held that evidence gathered by a law inforcement officer who reasonably relied on a search warrant may not be excluded in a criminal trial because of technical defects later perceived in the warrant.
Yet, for the exclusionary rule, the job remains only half finished. Because of the cases before the Supreme Court it was only able to extend the modification to search warrant cases. But it should also apply to non-warrant cases where an officer had an reasonable belief that his actions were lawful. This is the reform the Senate has already voted to enact.
The broad support for all three improvements in the criminal-justice system reflects a growing concern over the terrible toll of violent crime. The good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule passed the Senate by a 63-to-24 vote, the death-penalty provisions by 63 to 32, and the improvements in the insanity defense were passed with the rest of the anticrime package by 91 to 1.
This legislation still awaits action by the House of Representatives. These proposals enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate and are constitutionally sound. They are also critically necessary.