Burger's 'shocker' speech: a bid to stir debate on criminal justice

If US Chief Justice Warren E. Burger aimed to shock those involved in civil liberties and criminal justice with his speech last weekend at the American Bar Association convention in Houston, he has succeeded.

The normally news-shy chief justice, charging that "crime and fear of crime have permeated the fabric of American life," advocated steps in his annual address to the nation's lawyers which are drawing both criticism and praise from conservatives and reformers.

On one hand, Mr. Burger called for cutting back prison inmates' access to court appeals and hinted that he favors keeping "dangerous" persons jailed even before they have been tried.On the other, he advocated a total overhaul of the prison system -- even proposing more conjugal visits for prisoners.

His proposals, a mixed bag of conservative and reformist measures, brought instant reaction from civil libertarians.

"He is talking about presumption of guilt," charged John Shattuck, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), citing Chief Justice Burger's plan to keep some arrested persons locked up. The idea would "undermine the presumption of innocence on which our criminal system is built" and has "overtones of totalitarian" systems, Mr. Shattuck declared.

The ACLU official also assailed the Burger plan to limit access to court appeals. Convicted criminals now have a right to charge that their constitutional rights have been violated, he said. "To take that away is to take away a basic right established in the English system."

Shattuck and others are also charging that the chief justice damaged his role as an impartial judge in the speech. (The US Supreme Court now has before it a major case testing overcrowded conditions in jails.)

But constitutional law Prof. A. D. Howard of the University of Virginia defended Burger: "I think this speech is a very important one. He puts the force and dignity of his office behind these fundamental questions about crime and punishment."

"I hope he will spark some debate," added Professor Howard, an adjunct scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. "It would be a mistake to write this [speech] off as reactionary."

Along with proposals to tighten up criminal procedures, the chief justice also called for reforms that are applauded by liberals, especially his call for speedier trials and modernized prisons.

"I would like to see what he says translated into his opinions [in Supreme Court cases]," said Alvin Bronstein, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, which is suing 25 states on grounds that they have inadequate prison programs.

In his bar association address, the chief justice called for holding criminal trials within weeks of an arrest and for giving inmates a chance to "learn the way out of prison."

"In all but a minority of the states we confine the person in an overcrowded, understaffed institution with little or no library facilities, little if any education program or vocational training," said Burger.

Mr. Bronstein said that just two days before the chief justice's speech his organization filed a case in the Supreme Court alleging that a Colorado prison has many of the faults listed by Burger.

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