Don't make a federal case of it Overreacting to crime

March 14, 1994|By Maryanne Trump Barry

A HEIGHTENED fear of crime is rampant in the United States today.

In response, the House and Senate will soon consider final action on major crime legislation.

It includes an extraordinary number of provisions, including one that would make many offenses -- for example, virtually any offense involving a firearm -- a federal crime.

If enacted, the bill could swamp the federal courts with cases they are not properly equipped to handle.

Before this happens, Congress should look long and hard at the effect it will have if so many crimes now prosecuted by the states are federalized.

U.S. courts have traditionally handled complex cases with nationwide impact: serious interstate offenses, organized crime and major drug enterprises, white-collar crime, state and local corruption and international offenses.

In recent years, however, the careful balance between state and federal jurisdiction has largely been ignored, and there are now well over 3,000 federal criminal offenses on the books.

The bill under consideration would add many more. If there were a compelling reason why these crimes should come into federal court, judges would be the first to applaud. But no such reason has been suggested.

Rather, whenever a heinous crime captures the headlines, a cry goes up from lawmakers, who want to appear to be tough on crime, that it should be subject to a federal statute.

Apart from swamping U.S. courts, federalizing the multitude of offenses that have been traditionally handled by the states would be staggeringly expensive.

The provisions that could make a federal crime of almost any state offense committed with a firearm might place more than 200,000 additional cases a year under U.S. jurisdiction -- at an annual cost of nearly $7 billion.

Even if only 2,300 of these cases were prosecuted in federal court each year, the cost would be about $75 million.

The federal courts are simply not able to handle as many cases as state and local courts. In 1991, the U.S. district courts handled around 45,000 criminal cases, while the state courts processed almost 4 million.

There are fewer U.S. district court judges throughout the country than there are Superior Court judges in California.

Scarce federal resources would have to be diverted to cope with the deluge of prosecutions that would ensue if the pending legislation were enacted.

These prosecutions would render the federal courts largely unable to try the cases they are uniquely equipped to handle, much less try major criminal cases that might extend over weeks or months.

And the glut of new criminal cases would mean that civil litigants would suffer long delays before they ever got their day in court.

State courts are already pressed to the limit to cope with their demanding criminal caseloads, and need help.

But without a large infusion of money into the federal criminal justice system, which is hardly likely in this time of austerity, the states will not have their burden significantly reduced.

Winning the war against crime will require Congress to recognize the special role of the federal courts.

Lawmakers should seriously reconsider the provisions of the crime bill that represent a superficial -- if not disingenuous -- attempt to address one of the most sobering and perplexing social issues of our time.

Maryanne Trump Barry, a U.S. District Court judge in New Jersey, is chairwoman of the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

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