Crime Bills in Congress Are Said To Offer Only Incremental Change

ONE problem bound to be little affected by the Comprehensive Violent Crime Control Act of 1991, under debate on the Senate floor this week: Crime in America.

That is the consensus among police organizations, criminologists, former United States Justice Department officials, and conservative policy analysts.

None of the major proposals from either the Bush administration or Senate Democrats are expected to make a significant dent in crime. Instead, the bills offer an arsenal of incremental changes that either affect very few crime cases or affect many crimes very little.

One potential exception: Some prosecutors see big dividends in the Bush proposal to loosen up the rules concerning evidence seized improperly.

Crime regularly registers at or near the top of Americans' greatest public concerns in surveys. American murder rates are far higher than those of any other country that keeps records except Northern Ireland. Among young black men, violent crime is the leading cause of death.

The Bush crime bill and the Democratic alternative would each expand the federal death penalty to cover crimes such as terrorist killings and drug-related drive-by shootings. The Bush bill would admit at trials evidence gathered in improper searches, even those without warrants, as long as the police were acting in "good faith."

The Democratic bill would impose a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases while police check the purchaser for a criminal record.

When asked about the impact on crime of either version of the crime bill before the Senate, Mark Kleiman, a former division director at the Justice Department and now a lecturer at Harvard University, answers: "None."

"My sense is that it will not have a substantive impact," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington and former director of police in Newark, N.J.

"To some extent the government is setting a tone for crime control [with the crime bills] and that can be important," says Jerry Wilson, senior vice president of the Crime Control Institute and former Washington, D.C., police chief. "As far as deterring individual crime ... probably not much."

Ideological debate runs hottest over the death penalty and handgun control. But the debate over the practical impact on crime is strongest concerning the "exclusionary rule," which bars from court any evidence gathered illegally.

The Bush administration proposes extending the "good faith" exception to the rule - which is already established for searches with warrants that are later found to be flawed - to searches without warrants that are later deemed improper. The exception would apply both in federal and state courts unless states ruled out the evidence under their own constitutions.

Experts largely dismiss the perception that the exclusionary rule is a major obstacle to justice. A US General Accounting Office study in the late 1970s found that well under 2 percent of all arrests taken to federal prosecutors were declined, dismissed, or lost due to improper searches and seizures.

Yet some prosecutors in the field foresee significant increases in the number of successful drug cases that could be made under the Bush proposal. "Fifty to 75 percent of the cases we decline to prosecute are because of search problems," says Devallis Rutledge, deputy district attorney in Orange County, Calif.

Expanding the federal death penalty, and establishing more efficient codes for enforcing it, would apply mainly to relatively rare and sensational crimes.

The waiting period for handgun purchases is unlikely to have any impact on crime or gun ownership by criminals, according to James Wright, a Tulane University sociologist.

Dr. Wright surveyed 2,000 convicted felons in 10 states and found that only 1 in 6 purchased a gun in a store. With a waiting period and background check, such criminals would simply turn in even greater proportions to other channels for guns.

Some argue that the seven-day wait may act as a valuable cooling-off period, however.

"It seems like such a sensible thing to do to prevent the naive, enraged individual from getting a gun," says Alfred Blumstein, dean of Urban and Public Affairs at Carnegie Mellon University and a leading crime expert.

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