Clinton expected to back 'three-time-loser' law

January 25, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In answer to the public clamor for a crackdown on violent crime, President Clinton is expected to call in his State of the Union address tonight for mandatory life sentences for repeat violent offenders of federal laws.

A "balanced" approach to crime control that would include not only stiffer penalties for federal crimes, more prisons and additional police, but more emphasis on crime prevention and personal responsibility, will be a major theme of Mr. Clinton's first formal report on the State of the Union under his stewardship.

Mr. Clinton's anticipated endorsement for the "three-time-loser" proposal, already passed by the Senate and under consideration in many states, is seen by his aides as a way to take advantage of the momentum that has propelled crime control to the top of the public's agenda.

"I think he's got to be seen as aggressively in support of solutions for one of the nation's fastest growing problems," said a senior White House official.

The crime topic is expected to be blended with a boastful assessment of Mr. Clinton's first-year accomplishments, particularly his role in the economic rebound and reducing the federal budget deficit.

Mr. Clinton is focusing on crime to boost interest in a speech that would otherwise have been focused largely on his personal legislative priority for the year: overhaul of the massive health care system.

Crime and health care

"We see the two issues as inextricably linked," said the White House official, who noted that the president will call for quick action by the House to approve its version of the Senate crime bill. "There is a nice little window before Easter when Congress can pass the crime bill, and then come back and take up health care."

The Republican-backed provision for life without parole for violent federal offenders convicted for a third time is considered by many lawmakers to be a relatively minor and largely symbolic element of the $22.3 billion crime measure that passed the Senate late last year.

"The vast majority of crimes -- more than 90 percent -- are handled at the state and local level," acknowledged Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who has introduced a three-time-loser bill in the House.

"But I think this will send a very strong signal that while we want rehabilitation and we want prevention, if people are going to keep on committing violent crimes, we're going to have to protect society from them," said Mr. Hoyer, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

A group of House liberals, including Maryland Democrat Kweisi Mfume, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, appealed in a letter to Mr. Clinton on Sunday not to back the mandatory life punishment for repeat offenders. The letter was sent after Attorney General Janet Reno hinted in a network TV interview that Mr. Clinton might be about to sign on to the three-time-loser plan.

"It's a very bad idea and it doesn't work," said Rep. Don Edwards, a California Democrat who heads one of three House Judiciary Committee panels that would craft the crime package in that chamber. "Nobody ever thinks they're going to get caught. Our federal prisons are 140 percent over capacity because of mandatory sentences.

"But it's going to fly because it's got great sex appeal," Mr. Edwards added.

Mr. Clinton and the lawmakers are now awash in polls as well as anecdotal accounts from town meetings that tell them their political survival may depend on the appearance that they are addressing a crime wave of seemingly random, senselessness violence.

According to a survey published in Sunday's New York Times, 19 percent of the respondents listed crime and violence as the most important problem in the country today, compared with 15 percent who named health care reform and 14 percent who listed the economy first.

The major elments of Mr. Clinton's crime package: financing for 100,000 additional police officers, regional prisons, state boot camps and other low-security lockups for nonviolent offenders will probably be enacted without much fuss.

In attempting to seize the crime-fighting issue from the Republicans, President Clinton is doing a political favor for his BTC party, which has been considered soft on crime since the issue first came to the national forefront in 1968.

But Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who sponsored one version of the three-time-loser provision in the Senate, says he won't believe Mr. Clinton is serious about crime-fighting unless he puts the $22 billion for new police, prisons and other facilities in his new budget.

"If he's going to talk that talk, he's got to walk that walk," said Larry Neal, a spokesman for Mr. Gramm. "Maybe he's thought of that, but I'd betcha he hasn't."

TONIGHT'S SPEECH

President Clinton's State of the Union address will be televised live tonight at 9 p.m. by CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, C-SPAN, C-SPAN 2 and Comedy Central. Live coverage of the GOP response from Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas will be offered after the speech on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and C-SPAN.

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