Ensuring justice -- within the law

In urging a major legislative program to combat crime President Reagan has nudged all Americans into rethinking the adequacy of the present criminal justice system. There is working effectively, despite the huge amount of tax dollars poured into law enforcement as well as into social programs designed to alleviate poverty and unfavorable social conditions. Nor is there any question but that something is fundamentally wrong when relatively small numbers of repeat offenders commit a significant part of all serious crimes.

In this regard Mr. Reagan was seeking a shift in the criminal justice pendulum when he said that "the war on crime will only be won when an attitude of mind and a change of heart takes place in America." In other words, argues Mr. Reagan, not all crime can be explained by poverty or environmental factors, nor will massive social programs by themselves end criminality. What must also be served by the justice system is the enforcement of those deeper rules that ensure civilization. "Right and wrong matters," says the President; "individuals are responsible for their actions; retribution should be swift, and sure for those who prey on the innocent."

Congress, for its part, will want to weigh Mr. Reagan's proposals carefully. Some parts deserve prompt action, although lawmakers will likely be wary about the more controversial solutions. Tightening up bail provisions, for example, seems reasonable in those unique cases where society could be endangered by the release of a suspect. There is also merit in Mr. Reagan's call for mandatory prison terms for persons using handguns in the commission of a crime.

The President is also on target in seeking legislation "that will permit judges to order offenders to make restitution to their victims." Currently, innovative "work" and "payment" programs are underway in a number of communities throughout the US. Such programs are important in that they shift the concept of criminality away from being reckoned as merely instances of wrongdoing against an impersonal "state" or "system" to what they in fact actually are -- instances of injury or wrong to specific individuals.

Such programs also raise the possibility that many nonviolent offenders now in confinement could be paroled on work programs, thus freeing up overcrowded prisons for persons who constitute a genuine threat to others.

However, the President appears to be on shakier ground in urging reform of the "exclusionary rule" which in a court case prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence.

Mr. Reagan has sought to uphold the law in the air controllers' strike.Thus, it seems inconsistent to advocate in effect a bending of the law regarding use of tainted evidence. Beyond that, a more practical matter is at issue. Police departments are actually benefited by the exclusionary rule since they are forced to increase efficiency and ingenuity to come up with compelling, and legally obtained, evidence.

There was also much that was not said by the President that should have been said: the need for national gun control legislation and for job training programs for young people, particularly minority youth, who commit a disproportionate number of all stree crimes.

Overall, however, Mr. Reagan's speech rang a constructive note in urging Americans to reconsider not only the deeper causes of crime, but also the need for equalizing the pendulum to ensure that the criminal justice system works in favor of the victim and not the wrongdoer.

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