Debate over U.S. crime stirs anew in Congress Bush pushing for tougher, wider penalties.

April 15, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

WASHINGTON -- More Americans than ever before, 1.1 million, are now behind bars. More money than ever before, $16 billion a year, is being spent to keep them there.

And the United States, after nearly a decade of steadily expanding its jails and prisons and increasing the severity of criminal penalties, now leads the world in the rate at which it imprisons its citizens. For every 100,000 Americans, 426 are incarcerated. In contrast, the rate in South Africa is 333; in the Soviet Union, it is 268.

Yet despite the nation's toughened stance toward crime, the crime rate continues to drift upward, and the public clamor to do something about it continues to mount.

Heeding that call, the Democratic-controlled Congress is about to embark once again, for the eighth straight year, on a debate with the Republican White House over how to deal with the problem. That debate, as it has in the past, will be steeped as much in political rhetoric as in lawyerly discourse.

Democrats have generally accused Republicans of sacrificing the Bill of Rights for the sake of putting more people in prison for longer terms; Republicans charge the Democrats with being soft on crime.

President Bush will send Attorney General Richard Thornburgh to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday to push for a plan that would increase the severity and range of penalties for wrongdoing.

In addition to extending the death penalty to more than two dozen offenses and boosting jail sentences for gun offenders, Bush's bill would curtail long-standing rules governing appeals of state convictions in federal courts.

It would also allow prosecutors to use wrongfully obtained evidence if police acted in "good faith" to seize it, thus undercutting the so-called "exclusionary rule," which bars the use of tainted evidence in criminal trials.

Judiciary Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., complaining that Bush's proposal would go too far in weakening constitutional protections, has a rival bill that would stiffen criminal penalties but largely preserve accused people's rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

It also calls for a ban on selling and making semiautomatic assault-style weapons. And it contains a "racial justice" section that would enable defendants, as a defense against the death penalty, to produce statistical evidence of racial bias in meting out capital punishment. The Bush administration strongly opposes this provision, saying it would prolong appeals and hamper punishment of the worst criminals.

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