Crime bill reflects politics of 1984
Without the fanfare that accompanies the Senate ''crime package'' (S1762), the House Judiciary Committee has quietly worked toward realistic reform of the criminal-justice system.
The committee has approved or is considering some 20 criminal-justice bills.
Some, like the Justice Assistance Act, have passed the House and are pending in the Senate. More than any other piece of pending legislation, this bill could truly help local police fight crime.
This bill gives federal matching funds to state and local governments for a dozen crime-control programs of proven effectiveness. Congress approved this as part of a 1982 crime package that President Reagan vetoed. The House overwhelmingly passed this bill again in May 1983. It languishes in the Senate. It is part of S1762, but could be taken up separately.
Among bills reported by the House committee are three that would curb drug trafficking, which is at the root of so much street crime. One would increase criminal fines by 1,000 percent and expand forfeiture provisions in narcotics cases. Another would create a ''drug czar'' to coordinate the currently disorganized federal enforcement program. Both bills were part of the 1982 package President Reagan vetoed. Another would modify the insanity-defense plea to assure the public that those who are morally culpable will be punished.
Soon to be reported by the committee are bail and sentencing reform and legislation to compensate victims of crime.
Through the years, I have introduced and fought for administration support for legislation to strengthen federal handgun laws to help control violent crime at the local level. The Senate Judiciary Committee, however, with administration support, has reported a bill that weakens the current, loophole-ridden law.
Supporters of S 1762 contend it would reduce violent crime. It would do nothing of the sort. Except for three provisions in this 100,000-word, 400-page, pound-and-a-half hodgepodge, nothing in the package could conceivably help local law enforcement. The rest of S1762 affects only the federal system. Federal crimes make up less than 1 percent of all cases prosecuted annually in the United States. Few involve violent crime. If the true purpose of legislation is to aid in the fight against violent crime, it must be more than amendments that affect any federal law; they must do something tangible for the people involved in this struggle at the local level.
Of little help also to local police are companion bills approved by the Senate, bills that raise serious constitutional and policy questions: preventive detention (also in S1762), reinstatement of the federal death penalty, restricting the availability of federal habeas corpus to prisoners, and changes in the exclusionary rule.
The real controversy over this legislation lies in these latter proposals, which many believe to be unwise policy or an infringement on constitutional guarantees of how the American criminal-justice system should operate.
While we must be tough on criminals, we must take care that we do not merely create an illusion of toughness and in the process chip away at our constitutional safeguards against the abuse of power by the government.
Congress can and should enact all criminal-justice reforms where the potential for reducing crime outweighs the costs in dollars and liberties. It can and should enact reforms that make the system more equitable, efficient, and just.
Members of Congress have a duty to judge each criminal-justice proposal on its merit. That is what the House Judiciary Committee is doing. If the administration wants to demonstrate clearly its commitment to legislative action against crime, it should urge the Senate to pass the Justice Assistance Act, the one component of S1762 that could have a real effect on crime. And it should support strengthening federal handgun laws that would result in less crime and fewer deaths.
Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey is chairman of the House Judicary Committee.