It Wasn't Only the NRA that Shot Down the Faulty Crime Bill

August 18, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.--President Clinton is the leader of, or at least a member of, the party that controls both political branches of the federal government.

Yet after the crime bill capsized in the House of Representatives, with 58 Democrats against it, he said the bill's fate was controlled by the National Rifle Association, which opposes the bill's ban on assault weapons.

For another view, hear from Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.). One of six children of a working class family, Mr. Franks graduated from Yale, did well in real estate and in 1988, running in a district just 4 percent black, became the first black Republican elected to the House since Oscar DePriest won his last race on Chicago's South Side in 1932.

Mr. Franks is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus only because it cannot contrive to segregate him, but his conservatism makes him as welcome there as Rosa Parks was in the front of the bus.

Although Mr. Clinton considers the media among his many afflictions, the media spun like a top on the White House line that the crime bill was beaten largely because of the NRA.

So the morning after the House action against the crime bill, a few Republican representatives were nervous about being portrayed as devotees of assault weapons. But at the Republican caucus that day, Mr. Franks, focusing on the 11 Republicans who supported the bill, delivered a stinging denunciation of it.

The bill, he said, is loaded with ''make-busy programs'' -- the arts and crafts and dance and midnight-sports provisions -- that, ''I know from first hand don't work'' as crime prevention.

He said he could understand the 10 Black Caucus members who voted against the bill because of principled opposition to capital punishment, but what Republican principle could cause anyone

to support the bill?

Shortly before the House had voted, Mr. Franks' position had been buttressed by Prof. John DiIulio of Princeton, speaking at a Republican symposium. A Democrat and an expert on criminal justice policy, Prof. DiIulio opposes the bill while supporting the ban on assault weapons.

There is no national crime problem in the sense of a worsening threat to most parts of the nation and most sectors of society.

In fact, most people are safer today than they were a few years ago, partly because of demographic changes (fewer young males) and partly because of such self-defense measures as guns, dogs, tear-gas sprays, alarm systems, private security personnel (there now are more of these than police officers).

There are 20 or 30 urban areas where saturation policing is needed, but of the 100,000 police officers the crime bill supposedly will ''put on the streets,'' Prof. DiIulio says:

There are only about 20,000 fully funded positions. Allowing for sick leave, disabilities, vacations, desk work and three shifts a day, it takes 10 officers to put one officer on the street around the clock. So the 20,000 positions become 2,000 around-the-clock cops, and they are to be distributed to at least 200 jurisdictions.

Furthermore, Prof. DiIulio says, the bill would ''grease the revolving door'' that is described by these statistics: 63 percent of all violent felony defendants are released prior to trial, and 12 percent of all violent crime arrestees are on pretrial release when they are arrested.

The bill has a provision that would enable as many as 16,000 drug offenders to receive new trials or reduced sentences. He says the false argument behind this and some other provisions in the bill is that most prisoners have few prior arrests, no prior convictions and no history of violence. However, that describes only 6 percent of state prisoners.

In New Jersey, for example, 80 percent of inmates have criminal histories involving violence and have an average of nine prior arrests and six prior convictions.

In Florida, between 1987 and 1991 more than 100,000 persons were released early, and during the time they would otherwise have been incarcerated, they committed about 26,000 new crimes, about 5,000 of them violent, including 346 murders.

Granted, federal prisons have fewer violent criminals and more drug and property offenders. However, of 35,000 persons newly admitted to federal prisons in 1991, only 700 were convicted of drug possession alone. The crime bill, says Prof. DiIulio, will not make a dent in such problems.

The cobbling together of the bill illustrated two phenomena increasingly common in Congress: intellectual fads in search of funding, and a willingness to sacrifice coherence in order to allow incompatible factions to score political points by ''doing something'' about public anxiety.

This is why most opposition to the crime bill is unrelated to assault weapons. When the president suggests otherwise, he deepens the suspicion that his capacity for forthrightness has atrophied from disuse.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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