Pretrial detention: handle with care

The tough new anticrime law Congress enacted in its pre-adjournment flurry needs to be administered carefully if it is to help reduce crime without infringing on civil liberties. In addition, expectations should be tempered: The measure directly affects only federal crimes, which are far outnumbered by violations of state law.

Proponents of the wide-ranging new measure hold that it will make substantial inroads in curbing crime; opponents fear it will instead infringe upon the civil liberties of some Americans.

The new law, years in the making, revamps many areas of federal criminal law. Its section authorizing pretrial detention is at once one of the most significant and most controversial. For the first time it would permit a federal judge to deny bail to people accused of federal crimes and jail them before their trials take place, if the judge believes such detention is necessary to protect the safety of the community. A growing number of states now permit such detention.

The new provision, however, would not affect most violent crimes against people, the type of crime that is of the greatest concern to individual Americans, because the heavy majority of such crimes are violations of state law.

In any case, the potential danger in this section is that it could be misguidedly used to violate the basic rights of bail to people who may in fact be innocent. Judges need to examine their own motives when considering pretrial detention, to be certain the step would be taken only to protect society, not as a vindictive response to a person accused of serious crime. Hard-line laws require clear-headed administrators.

Similarly, the reform of sentencing procedures for federal crimes needs to be accomplished with the motive of justice, not retribution, uppermost in thought. This reform has the laudable aim of producing more nearly standard sentences for various federal crimes, rather than the disparate sentences often handed down now. It is to be accomplished essentially through a seven-member commission, to be named by the president, which will establish guidelines for sentences that federal judges may impose. A judge who violates the guidelines must explain his reasons in writing.

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