Crime: Punishment and Prevention

July 30, 1994

President Clinton calls it "the toughest, largest, smartest federal attack on crime in the history of our country." Political hyperbole aside, Democrats in Congress with a modicum of Republican support seem poised to pass a massive $30.2 billion measure that attempts to come to grips with the crime crisis from many angles: More cops on the beat, bans on specified assault weapons, extension of the federal death penalty, financial support for prison construction and efforts to deal with the sociological roots of criminal behavior.

If the measure passes, as expected, in the next fortnight, this would be quite an accomplishment for a Democratic administration. It would enable the party to fight chronic GOP taunts that it is "soft on crime." With Mr. Clinton's health reform proposal in jeopardy, Democrats see political payoff in taking action on an issue that obsesses the nation. The bill would vastly enlarge the federal role in a field that has traditionally been in the purview of states and localities.

As is so often the case with widely heralded initiatives, much will depend on implementation. The legislation calls for a trust fund nourished from savings in a reduction of the federal workforce. The Congressional Budget Office has questioned whether this source will be quite the cornucopia advertised. But because of the budget crunch, judiciary committees had to find substitutes for regular appropriations. A shortage of funds would reduce the effectiveness of the crime initiative.

There are other concerns. The gun control lobby, while welcoming the ban on assault weapons, fears a loophole has been created in the Brady Bill by lifting a requirement that pawnbrokers check the criminal records of those who seek to repossess guns. The Congressional Black Caucus will be assessing President Clinton's promised executive order against racial bias in federal death sentence cases since a legislative approach was dropped in conference to avoid a Republican filibuster.

The most visible aspect of the crime bill is the prospect of adding 100,000 police officers to law enforcement units throughout the country. Baltimore would get about 700 more officers, according to early projections, provided the city has the funds to match federal grants. Rep. Charles Schumer, a Brooklyn Democrat who has been the driving force behind the new bill, insists troubled large cities most plagued by crime will be taken care of. That remains to be seen.

Republicans are attacking the legislation primarily because of the billions it allocates to crime prevention programs that Senate minority leader Bob Dole has likened to the concoctions of a sociology department. Nevertheless, Republicans may not want to let the Democrats seize the high ground on crime, an issue they had patented, by blocking a measure so strongly supported by law-enforcement agencies. Though we doubt Mr. Clinton's claim that he ran for president to get a crime bill, he will take what congressional victories he can get.

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