House committee debates 'three strikes' sentencing

March 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The House Judiciary Committee debated a "three strikes and you're out" proposal yesterday, approving a complex array of qualifications. The bill would put away for life anyone convicted of three violent crimes.

The first two crimes could be violent state crimes, and one of the first two "strikes" could be a drug offense involving large quantities. The third crime must be a violent federal crime and could not be a drug offense. In addition, that crime would have to be one like bank robbery, involve federal employees or take place on federal property, except Indian reservations, which were exempted.

After protracted debate, the committee rejected an amendment that would have allowed "three strikes" inmates to get out after serving 25 years in prison if they had reached the age of 60. It also approved an amendment that would increase the amount of drugs that would have to be involved to count as a "strike."

The committee still has 10 more amendments to consider on the strikes proposal, and is expected to vote on those measures today.

Several other noncontroversial measures were approved yesterday as the Judiciary Committee began considering a multi-bill crime package. The committee is expected to conclude its work this week and send the legislation to the full House for action next week.

In a move that might confound a public outraged about crime, the committee also approved a proposal that could let thousands of inmates out of prison.

The idea is to clear the federal prisons of minor offenders.

The unexpected action yesterday came in an amendment to a bill that would give judges discretion in sentencing first-time, nonviolent offenders who had not previously been sentenced to more than 60 days in jail and who had not used a weapon in the incident in which they were involved. The current mandatory minimum sentence is five years. The bill passed yesterday would reduce that to two years, at the discretion of the judge.

The amendment, approved by voice vote, would allow judges to apply the looser standards retroactively.

"We have a total of 16,000 inmates who are in the federal system, under the mandatory minimum, who don't belong there, in many instances," said Rep. William J. Hughes, a New Jersey Democrat and former prosecutor, who introduced the amendment.

"I don't know how many," he added. "But they have no prior record. They didn't use a firearm. They're not there because they were kingpins in any criminal enterprise. They had very little connection with a criminal enterprise. And any sentencing judge, without their hands being tied, would not have sent them to prison to begin with."

"If it's good policy for those coming into the system," Mr. Hughes said later, "it's good policy for those already in the system."

The amendment, approved after little debate, was supported by a few Republicans, including Henry J. Hyde of Illinois and Bill McCollum of Florida, both of whom acknowledged that some of their Republican colleagues were likely to challenge the proposal on the House floor.

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