President Reagan is right in wanting to do something about the US crime problem. Unfortunately, the new anticrime package introduced by the administration this week creates more problems than it would solve. It has all the earmarks of a political document more than a serious legislative effort and, as now drafted, should be rejected by Congress.
The administration plan would do three things:
* Basically abolish the insanity defense.
* Water down the exclusionary rule that keeps tainted evidence out of federal courts.
* Limit the use of habeas corpus petitions by defendants seeking to have appeals shifted from state courts to federal courts.
In each case, the administration measure would do little to reduce crime yet would seriously undermine the legal rights of individuals. Take the insanity defense, which so many persons felt was abused in the Hinckley case. What is needed is not abolishing the defense, but rather reforming it, so that the burden of proof regarding insanity is shifted from the prosecution - which must now prove that a defendant is not insane - to the defendent, who would then have the requirement of proving insanity. A bill that would do just that has been introduced by Senator Strom Thurmond. Lawmakers should start with the approach in the Thurmond bill, not the administration's version.
So far as the exclusionary rule and habeas corpus provisions are concerned, these have served the broader purposes of justice. The exclusionary rule has not only eliminated use of dubious and illegal evidence, but, equally important, has prodded American police departments into modernizing their investigative methods. In the case of habeas corpus, it would be a retrograde step indeed to take away the process by which a defendant can seek to have a conviction overturned. Such a process may be untidy, but it protects those persons who may in fact be truly innocent (though convicted), or who may have been given excessively harsh sentences.
Also, a serious flaw in the administration plan is that it ignores the issue of handguns. Yet without resolving the handgun problem it is unlikely that any real dent can be made in bringing down the high crime rate in the US.