A crime bill lacking a coherent strategy

Robert M. Morgenthau

November 15, 1993|By Robert M. Morgenthau

IN THE 1993 crime bill working its way through Congress, the proposals to put more police officers on the beat nationwide and to construct new high-security prisons are sound.

Little else deserves support.

The bill lacks a coherent national anticrime strategy. It is a potpourri of programs that offers something to everyone -- except perhaps those who live in fear of violent crime.

Most disturbing are provisions extending the death penalty to an additional 47 federal crimes and creating more than 60 new federal crimes for conduct already harshly punished under state law. Legislators who think these measures will reduce violent crime fool themselves and the public.

The bill would provide no new federal judges, prosecutors or courtrooms. That isn't surprising: The new crimes and death sentences are window dressing. I doubt the proponents expect they would lead to a significant rise in prosecutions.

Consider a section that authorizes the death penalty for 15 federal crimes now punishable by life in prison. They include wrecking trains, placing injurious articles in the mail, destruction of aircraft facilities, murder by a federal prisoner serving a life sentence and "fatal violence against maritime platforms." Our streets will not be safer if they become law.

Another section would create a new federal crime, punishable by 25 years' imprisonment, for drive-by shootings.

Why is a new federal crime needed when this conduct is severely punished in every state?

A Senate provision would make evidence of a "commission of another sexual assault" automatically admissible in any federal case in which a defendant is accused of such an assault. This would eviscerate the longstanding principle that a defendant should not be tried for past deeds. The rule, however, would apply only to sex crimes on federal property; only a few such cases are tried each year.

Such provisions may be good politics, but they are not good law enforcement. They divert our attention from pressing needs.

I know of no law-enforcement professional who believes that all the death penalty provisions and new federal crimes would affect public safety in the slightest. The criminal laws we need are already on the books; what's missing is the commitment to use them.

A serious program to stem violent crime must have components that are conspicuously absent from this measure.

First, we must enact strong federal gun-control legislation. By itself, no state or city can control the spread of illegal guns.

Federal leadership and laws are required. Current law bans the importation of assault weapons, but not their manufacture or distribution within our borders. It is small solace to police officers that the weapons overpowering them are made in America. Enacting a law that purports to deal with violent crimes while ignoring guns is hypocritical.

Second, an effective federal-state anti-drug strategy is needed. While the community policing concept that the bill embraces is welcome, the beat cop is no match for organized-crime gangs that terrorize urban neighborhoods; their members must be imprisoned.

Funds are needed for sophisticated investigations of these gangs. The Senate's passage of an amendment that would expand federal officials' authority to probe and prosecute gang crimes seems encouraging.

Congress should also provide funds for enforcing the federal money-laundering statute, woefully underenforced since its enactment in 1986.

In addition, we must expand drug treatment programs so that addicts who want help can find it. New York City has 500,000 hard-core addicts and only 55,000 treatment slots, of which 34,000 are in methadone maintenance programs that serve heroin addicts only.

Third, the government must assume responsibility for those who cross our borders illegally and commit violent crimes. There are 2,621 illegal aliens in New York State prisons at an annual cost of $63 million. They would not be ours if the government had kept them out of this country. Washington should pay for the incarceration of these individuals or transfer them to federal custody.

This would go far toward relieving the crushing burden on state prisons -- a burden that forces the early release of violent offenders nationwide after they have served less than 50 percent of their sentences.

Fourth, we must make a national commitment to our youth. Raising children in broken homes, educating them in overcrowded schools and feeding them a steady diet of television violence is a recipe for more crime. We should earmark federal money for youth programs in neighborhoods blighted by drugs.

The bill would establish a 22-member commission to study crime and violence and a 13-member commission to study the causes of the demand for drugs. Do we really need more studies of these problems?

Instead of fancy blue-ribbon commissions, let us have an iron-willed commitment to address, on all fronts, a crime problem that may engulf us if we do not act decisively.

Robert M. Morgenthau is Manhattan district attorney.

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