Pass the Crime Bill

AFTER more than a month of haggling, the joint House and Senate committee that is ironing out differences in the omnibus anticrime act is ready to send the bill back to the two chambers for final passage. Last week the conferees cleared the last significant hurdle that blocked the bill's path.

The joint committee should promptly tie up loose procedural ends and deliver the $30.2 billion anticrime package to the House and Senate floors. Despite some remaining partisan differences over a few provisions, the bill enjoys strong support in both houses, and President Clinton has vowed to sign it.

This backing on Capitol Hill and in the White House reflects widespread public concern about crime, as expressed in polls. Further dillydallying by Congress would be a disservice to the millions of Americans yearning for greater public security.

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Among other things, the bill authorizes money to help communities hire 100,000 more police officers, primarily for community policing; provides funds to construct new prisons; incorporates ``three strikes and you're out'' and other stiff mandatory sentencing rules; and furnishes money for community-based crime-prevention programs. The ``Christmas tree'' act also addresses drug treatment, juvenile justice, victims' rights, violence against women, and crimes against children and the elderly.

Programs will be paid for through a crime trust fund, to be financed over six years by expected savings from a Clinton-administration proposal to cut 252,000 federal jobs.

One strength of the bill is that gun-control opponents did not eliminate the bill's ban on 19 kinds of assault weapons. Conferees last week shot down an attempt to scotch the ban on street-sweeper weapons.

However, the bill contains two major flaws. First, it authorizes the death penalty for about 50 additional federal crimes. We have long opposed capital punishment on moral grounds, and as a deterrent. Second, the bill does not retain the Racial Justice Act, which would allow challenges to death sentences if they seem applied in a racially discriminatory manner. Since more death sentences are likely to be applied, this is a very sad concession.

America needs a crime bill. This one can improve the safety of our streets. But its flaws may also create social bitterness. The White House and Congress should work until the final hour to reverse these flaws.

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