GOP Puts Out Contract on Crime
House moves to emphasize punishment over prevention, drop plan for 100,000 police
HOUSE members are rapidly moving toward a vote on a Republican crime package that marks an enormous shift in emphasis from last year's Democratic crime bill, one of President Clinton's main legislative victories.
Claiming a popular mandate to get tougher on crime, majority Republicans in the Judiciary Committee this week dismantled much of the $30-billion crime bill Mr. Clinton signed into law last August - including the provision to put 100,000 new police officers on the street.
They replaced it with a $21-billion ``Take Back Our Streets Act'' that emphasizes punishment, ties federal grants to longer prison sentences, and cuts nearly all prevention and rehabilitation programs.
``You can feel the tectonic plates shifting,'' says one senior Democratic staffer who works on legal issues. ``Last year's balance of prevention and punishment is giving way to a lock'em-up approach.''
``The system has been taken advantage of,'' says Paul McNulty, a GOP Judiciary Committee staffer. ``We think people should serve closer to 85 percent of their prison sentences. Currently, the average is 38 percent.''
In a deal with the National Rifle Association last week, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia agreed to set aside until May GOP efforts to repeal the ban on 19 types of assault weapons, a main feature of last year's bill. Clinton vows to fight any such repeal.
But the new GOP package removes straight-out the centerpiece of the president's crime initiative - the plan to boost police ranks by 100,000 by 1999. About 4,000 police have hit the pavement since August under the Democratic bill.
Instead of earmarking money specifically for cops in uniforms, the Republican plan offers $10 billion in open-ended block grants for municipalities to use as they see fit - from overtime salaries to squad cars. It also offers $10 billion in prison-building funds for states that meet stringent punishment criteria.
Republicans are also pushing to reduce the appeals process for death-row inmates, scale back search-and-seizure laws by which criminal evidence is often excluded from trial, and speed the deportation of illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes. These provisions are expected to face constitutional challenges.
Underneath all this lies a deeper struggle. Democrats say they believe in a balance between prevention and punishment; Republicans say liberal social policies have led to low arrest and conviction rates and that money is best spent on putting more felons in prison and keeping them there longer.
Democrats counter that many police chiefs and prison wardens in the US advocate crime-prevention and rehabilitation measures. They cite statistics showing that the number of prisons tripled between 1981 and 1991.
Democrats and some Justice Department officials complain that there has been little discussion about the new act, given the major changes it involves. This was dramatized in an exchange on Tuesday between newly elected Rep. Sonny Bono (R) of California, the former pop singer, and Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, sponsor of last year's crime bill.
Mr. Bono, who wants quicker criminal convictions, complained of ``too much legalese'' in the House debate. ``The American people know what they want,'' he said. ``If you do the crime, you do the time.''
Mr. Shumer retorted that he was ``sorry there is legal language'' being used. ``But the fact is, we are making laws here, not sausages.''
In addition, critics complain that two of the central elements of the bill - prison construction and block grants - give too much freedom to states and localities.
Block grants, for example, will be sent to municipalities with no strings attached, based on a formula matching Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) crime statistics and population.
Critics, including Attorney General Janet Reno, say a similar federal crime program in the 1970s was abused. Police chiefs bought private cars; one precinct purchased an unused $2-million computer. Ms. Reno, still committed to money earmarked to officer hiring, says ``one cannot tell'' where the block grants would go: ``Is it going for police officers or for some fancy piece of equipment that will sit on a shelf?''
One Republican staffer admits to block-grant loopholes that ``you can drive a truck through.'' But he says they are better than the ``nightmare paperwork'' in last year's crime bill.
Prison funding is also controversial. Some $5 billion is earmarked for states where prison sentences and time served nearly match. Another $5 billion is for states that begin such ``truth in sentencing'' reforms.
Yet a Justice Department analysis of the provision shows only three states qualify in the first category; in the second, spending to house additional prisoners ``will cause states greater expenses than the federal dollars they seek.''
The overall bill, scheduled to come up for a vote Tuesday, is expected to pass the House.