Trying again on crime

Dealing with violent crime in the United States is a challenge that has proven particularly difficult for lawmakers the past several years, in part because of sharp differences in approach over the whole concept of punishment and rehabilitation. A proposed new US criminal code that proponents had been developing for sixteen years bit the dust last April when lawmakers were unable to agree on how the measure should be brought before the Senate.

Now, a new anticrime package is once again being touted by a combination of conservatives and liberals. This time the measure appears likely to reach a full vote.

Rather than being a clone of that original code, the new package - introduced by Senators Strom Thurmond and Joseph Biden - is a collection of diverse proposals dealing with violent crime and drug-related incidents. Only two major sections in the package carry over from the proposed criminal code.

The current proposal, because it is a compromise reflecting differing attitudes towards punishment, contains several provisions that should be speedily rejected by lawmakers. At the same time the package represents a somewhat promising approach toward violent crime that should be given serious examination by Congress.

First, those provisions that should be quickly rejected:

* Parole would be eliminated for commission of a federal crime. This provision, in effect, denies the possibility of rehabilitation. Rather, imprisonment would be viewed solely in the context of punishment. Such a harsh view runs counter to the nation's traditional stress on the individual's right to opportunity for self-correction.

* Judges would have more authority to deny bail to persons facing trial.

This would constitute preventative detention, since persons suspected of being a threat to the community at some future time could be kept in jail.

Such a provision violates the long-cherished legal principle that a person can only be incarcerated for crimes actually committed.

Beyond these particularly questionable provisions, however, the measure is on target in tightening federal laws relating to drug and violent crimes. Jail sentences are increased for those persons who deal ''in large amounts of the most dangerous drugs;'' it would become a federal crime to kill, kidnap, or attack top US government officials; also to attack or interfere with witnesses in a federal criminal trial; penalties would be increased for persons who jump bail.

The most interesting proposal in the package would establish a seven-member national commission which within 18 months would set up specific sentencing guidelines for federal crimes. These would have to be submitted to Congress for approval.

Such uniform national guidelines, assuming they were eventually enacted, would deal with all aspects of the criminal justice process, such as sentencing, probation, restitution, etc. Under the plan, a judge who diverged from the sentencing guidelines would have to explain why, and either the defendant or government could then base an appeal on the explanation.

The crime package, for all its flaws, is at least a solid starting point for a congressional examination of one of the most serious concerns of Americans. It is not a matter of adding overharsh penalties to the criminal justice system, but of ensuring that violent deeds do not go unpunished.

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