Ineffective crime bill shows why Congress is in trouble

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

November 27, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- If any politicians are wondering why the voters view them with such pervasive skepticism, they have only to consider their performance on the crime issue here this year.

Once it became apparent from the results of the 1993 elections and the opinion polls that crime had climbed to first place among the electorate's concerns, senators and congressmen entered into a dizzying competition to see who could respond most aggressively -- or, at least, be seen as doing so.

No one bothered to wonder whether those poll figures might have been inflated right now by all the concentration on the crime issue in the high-visibility campaigns in New York and New Jersey that was reflected in the attention paid to the issue by television news programs.

Not to be outdone, President Clinton began talking about the need to assure the "personal security" of all Americans, thus wedging the street crime problem into the mix with job security and the assurance of health care.

At one point, the president even suggested there was a street crime component to the health care problem -- that is, the costs of treating all those people who get hit on the head or shot on Saturday night.

The Senate may have retired the cup, however, as it passed a crime bill that went far beyond anything that had been proposed by the White House, the Justice Department or, for that matter, the Judiciary Committee.

That measure not only provided for 100,000 new police officers but added more than 50 crimes to the list of those for which the death penalty would be applied and set mandatory minimum sentences for 21 others.

The fad solution of the year, in both campaigns and Congress, was some version of "three strikes and you're in" -- the requirement that three-time losers be locked up for life.

What the voters were not told but ultimately will discover, however, is that the direct impact of the Senate's action inevitably will fall far short of its rhetoric.

It should not be overlooked, for example, that the new penalties would apply only to violations of federal law while the vast majority of ordinary crimes are violations of state statutes.

That doesn't mean there is no point in tightening federal laws, but only that it would be a mistake to believe it will have a noticeable effect on, let's say, street crime in Newark.

Secondly, many of the provisions in the program were added strictly for short-term political purposes and will be removed when the House-Senate conference committee begins dealing with the legislation in a somewhat more serious way next year.

There is, for example, the provision advanced by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican who has always had an eye to the spectacular, to make it a federal crime with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years to use a gun in any street crime. That one alone could overwhelm the already packed federal prison system if it survived, which it won't now that D'Amato has once again made his point.

Third, there is still room for many a slip between cup and lip in carrying out the major initiatives of the bill -- particularly when it comes to financing. The plan for 100,000 new policemen sounds terrific, but it may take a lot longer than voters imagine to fund it, particularly since it is partly dependent on savings to be realized from Vice President Al Gore's reinvention of the federal government.

The political pressure on the crime issue is always heaviest on the Democrats, who have allowed the Republicans to paint them as "soft on crime" for a generation now, a depiction that Clinton has specifically vowed to reverse. But it is sometimes an awkward problem for the Democrats when get-tough measures are seen as aimed particularly at blacks and other minority groups.

This year even the Republicans are feeling some of the heat. That was most apparent in the final days of the congressional session when enough Republicans rolled over to allow approval of the Brady bill to set a five-day waiting period for buyers of handguns.

In the end Congress probably will produce a crime bill somewhat less Draconian than the Senate version but still loaded with provisions that take away more judicial flexibility in sentencing and add to the problems of prison overcrowding without finding any magic bullet to solve the crime problem.

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