1984 Crime Control Act Leads to 32% Rise in Prisoners

Times Staff Writer

Sweeping changes in criminal law enacted by Congress in late 1984 have led to a 32% increase in the number of persons being held in federal custody, a doubling of residential and commercial property seized and a sharp but temporary drop in witnesses being granted protection, the U.S. Marshals Service said Wednesday.

The passage of little more than a year since the legislation took effect is “too soon” to determine whether it will make the streets safer and significantly cut crime, Stanley E. Morris, director of the marshals, told a Justice Department briefing.

Nevertheless, “I can tell you that the Comprehensive Crime Control Act has had a quick effect--and in many ways a dramatic one--but not without problems,” Morris said.


In one memorable case, he said, the marshals service found itself in charge of a Texas bank that was insolvent and strapped by $6 million in non-collectible loans. As a result, the bank--acquired last June in a plea-bargain agreement with its owner, a convicted drug dealer--was turned over to the state of Texas.

Marshals’ Role

The marshals service is the chief agency concerned with implementing the new bail, property seizure and witness protection provisions that were included in the landmark crime legislation.

Morris tied the surge in persons being held to the changes in bail provisions, which allow federal judges to consider the danger of releasing a defendant before trial and bar the release of convicted persons unless they are likely to win on appeal and can prove that they are unlikely to flee or pose a danger to the public.

In 82% of the cases in which the United States sought to have a defendant held without bail, the bail was denied, Morris said.

However, he added that the sudden increase in prisoners has had “an immediate impact on an area already in crisis"--the federal prison system, which is operating at 42% over capacity.

As an example of the overcrowding, Morris cited the federal detention center at Terminal Island, which he said “has virtually become a marshals service jail.” It now houses about 475 prisoners, he said--putting it 104% over its rated capacity.

Prison Construction

Morris added that he expects the overall situation “will get worse before it gets better.” He said that the Reagan Administration has undertaken the biggest construction program in the history of the federal prisons, but there is a long lag time before it can be completed.

Another factor behind the increase in prisoners is the detention hearings provided for in the 1984 law. Previously, defendants usually appeared before a magistrate for a release hearing within 24 hours of arrest. Now, defendants undergo hearings that take on the appearance of a mini-trial, sometimes lasting several days.

In addition, the new law has expanded significantly the kind of property marshals can seize from criminals, which had been limited largely to cash, cars, jewelry and the like. Now, Morris said, the marshals have taken custody of mines, factories, a record studio, condominiums, ranches, farms and beauty salons and have contracted with qualified managers to run them until they are sold.

Burden of Proof

Until the law was enacted, the government had to prove that property had been acquired because of ill-gotten gains before it could be seized. But the law shifted the burden, now requiring a defendant to prove that he did not acquire property criminally to prevent its seizure.

The number of real property seizures doubled from 130 in fiscal 1984 to 260 in fiscal 1985, Morris said. By the end of November, the marshals had $313 million in seized assets.

With the increase has come problems, with the marshals discovering, for example, that a criminal’s interest in a seized asset turned out to be minimal or even non-existent. As a result, the marshals are adopting procedures for planning seizures that require attorneys to determine a defendant’s ownership in an asset, outstanding liens and encumbrances against the asset and the cost of managing it over the long term.

The sharp reduction in the number of new witnesses admitted to the protection program run by the marshals--189 last year, down from 290 in fiscal 1984--reflected a tightening of requirements for entering the program under the new law.