Clinton's Crime Bill Draws Barbs From Cops and Felons

AS President Clinton wrestles with the nation's lawmakers for a re-make of the anticrime bill effectively killed by the House last week, interested parties - from cops to convicted felons - say Washington policymakers need a reality check.

Corrections officials scoff at what they call efforts to build the United States out of its crime problem by constructing more facilities to house an ever-growing prison population. Gun fanciers are fighting the drive to outlaw a number of semi-automatic weapons. Prisoners say money would be best spent on crime prevention and rehabilitation programs.

But Mr. Clinton is trying to keep much of the $33-billion bill intact. If he succeeds, there could be 100,000 extra police, new prisons and crime prevention programs, a ban on so-called assault weapons, tougher sentencing guidelines, expanded provision for the death penalty, and life imprisonment for three-time violent felons.

Ted Sexton, sheriff of Alabama's Tuscaloosa County and a recognized expert on national crime issues, says 25 percent of Americans have been victims of crimes. While ``the community wants the violent offender off the street,'' he says, more federal money must reach the nation's largest cities and rural areas now unable to afford sufficient police forces, drug and youth programs, and after-prison supervision.

``In Alabama, we have 33,000 people on probation and on parole, and only 290 officers to monitor them. The recidivism rate is high, and that jams up the courts,'' Mr. Sexton says.

Meanwhile, weapons are easily available. The bill's prospects of passage mean brisk business at Gilbert's Guns in Rockville, Md. According to George Harting, a salesman at the store, ``the ban panic'' has boosted the numbers of semi-automatic weapons he sells each day. Mr. Harting's customers range from plumbers to professors. But some 20 percent of Gilbert's Guns purchasers are buying for self-defense; the remaining 80 percent, he says, want guns for recreational use, such as hunting and target shooting.

A life-time member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Harting repeats the claim of the powerful lobby that helped to kill the Clinton bill. A law that would remove them from the shop shelves, he says, would be an infringement on the constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms.

The increasing number of repeat offenders has created the pressure to build more jails, Harting says. He urges prison officials to ``make life so miserable [for first-time offenders during incarceration] that they don't want to go back to jail.''

Today, plenty return. The rate of repeat offenders at most institutions around the country averages 50 percent, a phenomenon that strains an already over-burdened criminal justice system. Courts have a backlog of cases; jail cells, originally designed as temporary holding pens, are now stuffed for years with men and women awaiting trial; penitentiaries across the country are under court orders to expand to meet federal prison-space and safety standards.

DURING ``chow time'' at the Maryland Correctional Facility at Jessup, a medium-maximum security prison for men, 1,153 inmates file into the dining hall in four separate shifts for their 15-minute lunch. Built for 500 prisoners in 1980, the facility was forced to hold twice that number five years later.

Over chop suey and rice, Jessup inmate Phil Kohen says ``the crime bill is making a big mistake.'' Into his 16th year for a rape conviction, Mr. Kohen warns that building more prisons ``is like building us more universities. We learn from each other in here - living together makes us better educated in crime.''

David Weyer, a convicted arsonist serving a 10-year term, nods in agreement. Money would be best spent on preventing crime and on self-help programs in existing prisons, he says.

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