Life sentences, sure, but try rehabilitation first

January 05, 1994|By Arlen Specter

WHEN Congress reconvenes on Jan. 25, it has a chance to do something meaningful about violent crime.

The crime bill the Senate passed before the holiday recess is a start; it would provide $22.3 billion over five years for a broad range of anticrime activities, including building new prisons and hiring more police officers.

Something else needs to be part of any serious approach to crime, but hardly anyone is willing to advocate it because it is unpopular to appear concerned about convicts.

I don't believe in coddling criminals -- as my record as a district attorney and then senator shows -- but we need to focus on rehabilitating first- and second-time offenders before they become career criminals.

About 70 percent of violent crimes are committed by habitual offenders, many of them drug addicts. Yet while 27 states have laws authorizing life sentences for such criminals, they are rarely used.

When I was district attorney of Philadelphia in the late 1960s and early '70s, my office made major efforts to use Pennsylvania's habitual-offender law without success. Even tough judges were reluctant to impose harsh sentences because of an unspoken feeling that the defendant had not really had enough of a chance to justify isolating him for life -- and, besides, the prisons were so overcrowded there was no place to put him.

Not much has changed, except that the prisons are more overcrowded and decrepit. There is little counseling for inmates who are dependent on drugs and even less literacy education. And there is no meaningful vocational training to enable an ex-con to get a job, so he returns to a life of crime.

Washington State recently enacted a "three strikes and you're out" law that mandates life sentences for those convicted of three serious crimes.

But even in states that follow Washington's lead, judges are likely to resist such Draconian mandates unless there are better rehabilita

tion programs for first and second offenders. If rehabilitation were available, judges would be far more willing to give life

sentences to three-time offenders who failed to take advantage of it.

Rehabilitation doesn't merely serve the interests of the justice system; it means fewer potential victims. Is it any surprise that an illiterate without a trade or skill leaves jail only to rob or rape again? Add drug dependency to the picture, and the parolee goes through the revolving door, out of prison and back in.

The anticrime legislation passed by the Senate would help in the rehabilitation effort. Over $1 billion would be made available for drug treatment and other rehabilitative programs; the Senate also adopted my amendment to create a federal office to coordinate and improve job placement programs for ex-inmates.

There are other ways to encourage states to use habitual-offender laws. For more than a decade, legislation pending in Congress would provide Federal prison space for career criminals convicted in state courts. This recognizes that such criminals, customarily drug offenders who move interstate, are really a federal problem.

Further reform of the criminal justice system requires diversion of lesser cases involving nonviolent first offenders out of the criminal courts altogether so they can focus on serious crimes. It requires elimination of plea bargaining so that meaningful sentences are imposed. And we need to reform the federal courts' review of state death penalty cases to reduce the interminable delays.

Admittedly, such reforms do not deal with the root causes of crime -- in particular, poverty, the rise in illegitimate births and the disintegration of the family. The future of crime control is bleak unless we move on many fronts. But Congress can make an immediate impact on violent crime by focusing on realistic rehabilitation and then on life sentences for criminals who cannot be rehabilitated.

Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.