Wrangling on Hill May Slow Passage of Crime Bill
Lawmakers are at loggerheads on death-row appeals, gun control
WHEN both houses of Congress take up anti-crime legislation this week, they bring with them the baggage of past, failed crime bills and the promise of a new Congress, a new administration, and a renewed determination to overcome partisan differences.
There are important areas of agreement among the Democratic leadership, Republicans, and the Congressional Black Caucus, which all have their own proposals. First among them is federal grants for ``community policing'' - more officers on the streets, working with citizens in their neighborhoods to prevent crime.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calls the community-policing provision the ``cornerstone'' of anticrime legislation. The Democrats' bill, which is slated to go straight to the Senate floor on Thursday, provides $3.45 billion to states to hire 50,000 new officers over six years for community policing.
The Republican alternative calls for $1.8 billion over five years for states to hire 27,000 new officers. This difference is not considered a major sticking point in the bill.
At issue are the points that sank the bill in the last Congress - gun control and death-row appeals. Looking at the landscape of the new Congress, Chris Sullivan, legislative director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, says, ``I'll be surprised if we have crime legislation this year.''
The problem will come in the House-Senate conference after each house has passed its own bill. Last year, the Senate failed to pass the final conference report because of the so-called Brady bill, which would require a five-day wait before the purchase of a handgun. This year, Senate sponsors have opted to handle the bill separately, but it remains in the House version of the crime bill.
Another hot-button issue is the habeas-corpus process, in which death-row and other prisoners challenge their sentences on constitutional grounds. Conservatives complain that seemingly endless appeals have clogged the court system. Liberals counter that the death sentence is not only morally wrong but also is meted out disproportionately to minorities, and that limiting appeals on death sentences worsens the situation, especially given the inadequate legal counsel many poor people receive.
Senator Biden worked out a compromise providing for a six-month statute of limitations on habeas petitions in capital cases and new rules designed to ensure indigents adequate counsel early in legal proceedings. But Congress's black and Hispanic caucuses are not happy with this plan, and they won a slowdown in the House Judiciary Committee's consideration of its crime bill.
The Democratic leadership's approach has been to base this year's legislation on the conference report that died last year, and to put it on a fast track for early completion. Critics complain the leadership is moving too quickly and not allowing enough public debate on the new bill.
But the critics, including some freshmen who argued they weren't around in the last Congress to have their say, won a slowdown and two days of hearings last week. In addition, Rep. Craig Washington (D) of Texas, a member of the black caucus, introduced alternative legislation with 24 co-sponsors that he says focuses more on crime-prevention than punishment.
The Washington bill would abolish mandatory minimum sentences, would not limit petitions for habeas corpus, and would address racial disparity in sentencing. Mr. Washington also suggests alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders and increased spending on community institutions that can keep people out of crime in the first place.
``This is a second crime bill. It's not meant to supplant the leadership's bill,'' Washington says. ``We are trying to promote an enlightened discussion to get at the root causes of crime. We want to figure out how to make sure the kids that [commit crimes] now won't be committing crimes 20 years from now.''
Other critics of the leadership's bill are repeating arguments that have long surrounded this anticrime legislation: that it panders to public sentiment about ``getting tough on crime'' but will likely do little to affect the actual crime rate.
The bill expands by 47 the list of federal offenses that will be punishable by death. But that doesn't impress law-enforcement professionals. ``This is to grab headlines,'' says Mr. Sullivan of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. ``Ninety-five percent of crimes are local crimes and not federal.''
Diann Rust-Tierney, chief legislative counsel in the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the public is getting mixed messages from officials on crime. The appointed leaders - such as the attorney general, the FBI director, and President Clinton's drug czar - are speaking about crime in ``new terms,'' with greater emphasis on underlying causes.
But the elected officials are still focusing on punishment. ``Political toughness is what's driving this'' legislation, says Ms. Rust-Tierney.