In his first major domestic policy initiative, President Bush is considering declaring a national crime emergency and plans to propose a combination of prison construction, a crackdown on criminal gun-users and wider use of the death penalty to cope with lawlessness, government sources said Wednesday.
But Bush has not yet resolved a deep split within his Administration on the sensitive issue of how--or even whether--to regulate assault weapons as part of the effort, the sources said.
The crime package, shaped principally by Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh and Roger B. Porter, White House domestic policy adviser, is scheduled to be unveiled by the President on Monday at a peace officers memorial ceremony on the Capitol steps. However, Administration officials, noting that announcement of the package already has been postponed, repeatedly pointed out that Bush has yet to sign off on some key elements and that it could be delayed again.
Wants Certain Punishment
Bush's crime message, said one source familiar with the plan, will declare that the public is endangered by burdensome procedural requirements protecting defendants in criminal cases and will call for greater emphasis on the public's right to safety and the need for certain punishment for hard-core offenders.
Among the gun-control provisions being weighed is a five-year ban on sale of a firearm to anyone convicted of even a misdemeanor that carries a six-month jail term. Currently, federal law bars only convicted felons from owning firearms. A sentencing policy change in the plan would mandate firm minimum prison terms for those convicted of crimes involving firearms, Administration sources said.
Prison reform planks will concentrate on easing overcrowding at institutions to allow more convicts to be incarcerated. The measures will include setting up temporary confinement areas and longer-term efforts to build several new regional prisons.
The proposals are featured in a draft program labeled "the National Crime Emergency Act," which is in the final stages of review in the White House. It has been so closely held that major enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have not yet been briefed on its contents.
Sources said that the White House had planned to get Bush's approval for the package in time for an announcement this week but pulled back out of concern that the mounting Panamanian election controversy would divert public attention from what the Administration considers one of its most important policy efforts.
In deference to budget constraints, the package is designed to involve only modest additional spending, if any.
In particular, the prison construction program is being described as "deficit-neutral." It would be funded through such steps as selling federal properties, terminating other unspecified programs and using revenue generated by the sale of assets seized from criminals.
In fiscal 1988, asset forfeitures from drug dealers, organized crime figures and others netted $220 million, some of which was distributed to local agencies with the remainder largely unspent. If devoted to prisons, that amount would cover the cost of building--but not operating--about four 500-bed correctional facilities, a Justice Department source said.
The use of private financing for prison construction and leasing of other facilities are also under consideration.
New gun control provisions are envisioned as a key part of the Administration's anti-crime initiative--provisions given political impetus by the killing of five children in a Stockton schoolyard by a man armed with an AK-47 early this year. But after weeks of discussions, the White House has yet to determine how such weapons should be regulated, Administration sources said.
Among the most far-reaching option still being debated is proposed legislation that would extend a current temporary ban on imported assault rifles, making it permanent and expanding it to cover a total of 15 U.S.- and foreign-made military look-alikes.
An alternative at the other end of the spectrum is the measure that would not address assault weapons directly but would instead prohibit criminals found guilty even of minor misdemeanors from purchasing any weapon for five years after their convictions.
The debate reflects in part a political dispute between those who believe that President Bush must respond to the public outrage over assault rifles and those concerned that outlawing the weapons would infringe on the rights of hunters and unwisely anger the powerful National Rifle Assn.
Bush's anti-crime program also would include Justice Department recommendations on setting up a system under which gun dealers could ascertain immediately whether prospective purchasers were convicted criminals and therefore barred from buying firearms. Such a system, involving either telephone or computer links between dealers and a federal registry, has been endorsed by the NRA as an alternative to mandatory waiting periods for firearms purchases.
The proposed broadening of the range of crimes subject to the death penalty is said to focus on repeated serious offenders who use firearms in their crimes. It would expand on measures enacted last year by Congress, which authorized the death penalty in murders committed by drug kingpins and for the murder of police officers in the course of drug-related crimes.
Further, the Administration is expected to make another effort to ease the "exclusionary rule" that bars admission in criminal trials of evidence seized in improper searches. In recent years, officials of the Ronald Reagan Administration called for legislation creating a "good faith" exception to the rule, to admit evidence collected in searches that were marred by minor, technical flaws in search warrants.
Another measure to be included in the crime reduction package would seek to assist overburdened prosecutors by providing new funds to hire additional assistant U.S. attorneys in high-crime areas.
In addition, the program would establish a task force to assist investigators at both federal and state levels in identifying offenders. The goal would be to establish an improved system of standardized identification, including--but not limited to--fingerprints and voice prints. While many of the measures included in the crime package would affect the drug offenders that have been the target of much of Bush's rhetoric since taking office, the proposal is distinct from an anti-drug strategy now being shaped by the Administration.
That effort, coordinated by William J. Bennett, director of the White House National Office of Drug Control Policy, is not expected to yield specific legislative proposals until late this summer.
Staff writer David Lauter contributed to this story.