Bush's Anticrime Bill

THE anticrime bill put forward this week by President Bush trades on ``common sense.'' If you're going to have a death penalty, it should be efficiently applied, not strung out by appeals. If you want to lock up criminals, don't let them off by excluding evidence seized illegally by the police. If you want to reduce the use of guns in crime, toughen penalties for criminals who use guns. These propositions have a certain surface logic. But they gloss over fundamental issues.

The bill's capital punishment provisions rest on the assumption that the threat of execution deters violent crime. Yet many murders and drug offenses are driven either by passion or strong economic motives, neither of which are likely to be tempered by a death penalty.

Wouldn't deterrence be more likely if the penalty were surer? The process by which a state kills a citizen, however heinous the crime, shouldn't be an easy one. Faster executions, from which there can be no appeal, are more likely to thwart justice than bolster it. The administration's preoccupation with the death penalty suggests that rehabilitation and redemption, concepts central to any civilized system of criminal justice, are being shelved.

The president would also like to start shelving the rules of evidence imposed by the Supreme Court in the '60s. Those rules exclude evidence obtained through illegal police searches. Perhaps there's room for compromise here, when officers have acted in good faith. But the balance must remain in favor of strict observance of the rules. Privacy and freedom from police intrusion demand that.

Finally, gun control. A tougher penalty for those who use guns to commit crime is a good idea. So is a ban on the sale of all assault weapons. So is an extended waiting period for those wanting to buy a handgun, as proposed in the so-called Brady bill. The latter two ideas, however, offend the powerful gun lobby in Washington. They find no place in the Bush bill.

The president's crime legislation has some strengths and plenty of weaknesses. We'd like to see a strong anticrime bill passed in 100 days too, but not this one in its present form.

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