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Rousing Cheer for an Imperfect Bill : Crime measure’s strengths exceed its flaws

The fight was ugly but the White House finally prevailed. A crime bill passed this week after marathon meetings, poker-faced deal-making and some pretty nasty name-calling. Though trimmed--to a still-hefty $30.2 billion--the compromised legislation still promises more police and more prevention programs to Americans weary of crime.

The bill, at best, offers $13.4 billion to local governments to hire as many as 100,000 additional cops. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican who lobbied Washington on behalf of the measure, can expect plenty of new federal help. Los Angeles could get 1,600 new officers. Orange County expects 200 additional officers. More Border Patrol agents, which California can certainly use, are also included in the deal.

California also expects to get a large share of $9.9 billion marked to build new prisons, establish “boot camps” for young offenders and reimburse states that imprison illegal immigrants convicted of felonies. That too is welcome news.

Much has been said about the so-called pork in the bill. But prevention is at least as important as locking up criminals. The $5.5 billion authorized for local grants to fund recreation, education and anti-gang efforts will pay for programs like new shelters for battered women, facilities that few cities or counties could otherwise afford. After-school programs, the much-maligned midnight basketball leagues and Los Angeles’ ambitious Hope in Youth gang-prevention effort also deserve consideration.

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On the drug front, $1 invested in treatment returns greater dividends than $1 invested in law enforcement. The $1.4 billion authorized for anti-drug efforts will finance special courts, advocated by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, to deal with nonviolent first offenders. These special courts worked in Miami and should work in Los Angeles.

The crime bill was almost killed for the sixth year in a row by bitter partisan politicking. The National Rifle Assn. attacked the strong federal assault weapons ban, championed tirelessly by California’s own Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She won. So did America.

The crime bill survived because a compromise was crafted by shrewd Democrats who sacrificed a few chunks of pork and moderate Republicans who broke ranks. In the House, three California Republicans--Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley, Steve Horn of Long Beach and Mike Huffington of Santa Barbara--deserve credit for supporting this bill.

President Clinton will gladly sign this truly bipartisan measure into law. It is imperfect, to be sure. But in the fight against crime, any help from Washington is both warmly welcomed and desperately needed.

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