FBI may shift role to fight violent crime End of Soviet Union frees up resources for domestic work

December 29, 1991|By Ronald J. Ostrow | Ronald J. Ostrow,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The FBI, in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is studying a major reordering of its resources, according to Attorney General William P. Barr.

Although Mr. Barr would not discuss any details of the study, which he requested some time ago, it presumably will raise the possibility of shifting some of the large number of agents now doing foreign counterintelligence work to fighting domestic crime.

Some such shifts would be necessary to carry out his pledge to step up the federal government's fight against violent crime without weakening efforts in such other key areas as white-collar crime.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he called such an accelerated attack on violent crime, particularly murders, "one of my highest priorities."

The portion of the FBI's 10,350 agents who were assigned to the labor-intensive tasks of following and otherwise monitoring Soviet citizens suspected of spying under diplomatic cover from diplomatic missions in the United States or at the United Nations in New York has never been discussed publicly. But it is known to be a substantial number.

While recognizing that battling violent crime is "principally a state and local responsibility" because more than 95 percent of the violations fall within their jurisdiction, Mr. Barr said last week that the federal government "can play a leadership role and have a real impact."

He listed these ways of countering violent criminals with federal action:

* Attacking gangs through drug and firearms laws and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, which gives prosecutors expanded powers and carries stiff sentences.

Mr. Barr said the FBI's gang squad in its Washington field office, which works with local police in pursuing violent gangs under drug and firearms laws, will be expanded in other cities where gangs and related violence have become a major problem.

* Focusing resources on career criminals, because a very high proportion of violent crime is committed by a small, hardened segment of violators. More than 2,600 suspected violent lawbreakers have been charged since April under Operation Triggerlock, in which U.S. attorneys prosecute repeat felons with federal gun laws that carry mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years in prison.

* Prodding states to follow the federal lead in "reform of the criminal justice system" by adopting such measures as pretrial detention of violence-prone suspects, stiffer sentences and expanding prison space. "While some states have followed suit [on the federal action], a lot haven't," Mr. Barr said.

* Prosecuting the war on drugs effectively because of the "obvious correlation between the drug trade and violent crime."

Mr. Barr said he did not think that budget pressures on state and local governments would deter them from adding to their prison space. "I think people will demand it," he said.

Even though such cities as Washington are breaking homicide records this year (the nation's capital set a new high of 485 murders with two on Christmas Eve) Mr. Barr said violent crime peaked nationally in 1980 and had plateaued at a high level ever since.

Violent crime shot up dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, a period Mr. Barr characterized as "an era of permissiveness in criminal justice." While violent crime rose from 286 per 100,000 persons in 1960 to an all-time high of 597 per 100,000 in 1980, incarceration rates dropped, he noted.

In 1980, the rates of imprisonment headed up sharply. "The decade of the 1980s was when we got tough and went back to the basics," Mr. Barr said. Incarceration climbed from 134 per 100,000 in 1980 to 292 per 100,000 in 1990.

Stopping the rise in violent crime "during the decade when drugs reached epidemic proportions is really an accomplishment," he contended, although violent crime is at "an unacceptably high level."

Mr. Barr dismissed as "a false dichotomy" the argument over whether crime should be attacked by seeking to eliminate the so-called root causes through social programs or toughened law enforcement.

"Both law enforcement and social renewal are essential and they must work together, mutually reinforcing one another," he said.

Mr. Barr said there had been "a disconnect between law enforcement efforts and social programs" in spending over the past 25 years.

While the Department of Justice's former grant-giving agency, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, was "shoveling out" millions on police equipment and related assistance, the Department of Health and Human Services was independently carrying on its equally expensive projects, "and never the twain shall meet," Mr. Barr said.

As a remedy, he cited the Department of Justice's current "weed and seed" approach, which calls for coordinating federal, state and local law enforcement community by community and then integrating those efforts with social rehabilitation. Crime and disorder must be "weeded out" before social reform can be "seeded" under the department strategy. The weed and seed approach is likely to receive government-wide emphasis in President Bush's State of the Union or budget messages, a White House source said.

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