GOP to Seek New, Stronger Anti-Crime Bill
Republicans who will take control of Congress in January said Friday that they will quickly pass a stronger crime bill to end lengthy appeals for convicted criminals, give police more leeway in searching for evidence and encourage states to require violent offenders to serve longer terms, build more prisons and adopt sentencing reforms.
“We want to pass a real crime bill and we are committed to bringing it forward within the first 100 days,” said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), a leader on crime legislation in the House Judiciary Committee.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have chafed for more than a decade at their inability to pass ever-tougher measures to combat crime. While Democrats have moved to the right on crime, their senior committee chairmen in the House often bottled up what they saw as extreme proposals.
Now, suddenly, the way is cleared for Republicans to wage their own legislative war on crime.
“We won’t have (Jack) Brooks blocking us any more,” a jubilant McCollum said, referring to the crusty chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who was defeated by Texas voters on Tuesday.
The proposals are spelled out in “The Taking Back Our Streets Act” section of the Republican “contract with America,” which more than 300 Republican candidates signed before the election.
But unlike the far-reaching Republican proposals for a balanced budget, tax cuts and strict time limits for welfare, the proposed anti-crime initiatives are not revolutionary. Many simply piggyback on popular state proposals, such as imposing mandatory prisons terms for repeat, violent offenders.
In other instances, the steps would expand programs included in this year’s crime legislation. For example, the new crime law gives some money to states to encourage the adoption of “truth-in-sentencing” laws and the Republicans want to devote more money to that purpose.
It is widely agreed that the public has grown angry at hearing of violent criminals who, for example, might be sentenced to 15 years in prison but would become “eligible for parole” in perhaps four years. Under truth-in-sentencing, which became part of federal law in 1988, convicted criminals must serve at least 85% of their prison sentences.
Pointedly, the Republican leaders have distanced themselves from tough proposals advocated during the Ronald Reagan era, such as dropping the so-called Miranda warnings or scrapping the “exclusionary rule,” which bars the use of illegally obtained evidence.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), expected to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was asked Friday if he favors loosening the Miranda rule that makes a confession illegal when police fail to warn a suspect of his right to remain silent and to consult a lawyer.
“I have some trouble there,” Hatch said. “Personally, I think that the Miranda warning probably is a good thing,” Hatch told interviewers on the Court TV program, “Washington Watch.”
Similarly, McCollum was asked whether Republicans might broadly attack the Supreme Court’s 1961 decision that excludes illegally obtained evidence from a criminal trial.
“No, we won’t want to excuse a clearly illegal search that violates someone’s rights,” he said. “But if an officer thought he was complying with the law in good faith, we don’t want that evidence thrown out.”
Twice during the 1980s, Republicans won broad support on Capitol Hill to amend the law to allow the use of criminal evidence turned up by “good faith” police searches but senior Democrats blocked the proposals from coming to a vote on the House floor.
Most Republicans also deny that they intend to repeal the recently enacted ban on the possession of certain assault weapons.
“That’s not in the contract,” McCollum said. “Some people might bring it up but I don’t think it will be part of the agenda.” Hatch said that he opposed the assault weapon ban but doubts that a majority in the Senate would want to reopen the issue next year.
Nonetheless, Republican lawmakers and their advisers on crime said that there is broad agreement on five key proposals for a new crime bill:
* Reduce the social spending included in the recent crime law and give more of the money to city officials to fight crime as they see fit. The crime bill passed last summer provides $6.9 billion over six years for crime prevention programs, many of which were derided by Republicans as wasteful.
“I think the first priority will be to take out the pork-barrel programs and turn it into block grants for local governments to use for crime prevention,” said Richard K. Willard, a former Reagan Administration official who has advised House Republicans on crime.
The current law is “broken up into little programs that reflect federal judgments more than the states’,” said William P. Barr, attorney general during the George Bush Administration.
In the past, “block grants” have been criticized as a Republican version of pork-barrel spending, and this proposal will likely meet strong opposition from the Democrats.
* Cut off “frivolous” appeals for Death Row inmates.
“We want to give them one bite of the apple and that’s it,” McCollum said. State prosecutors complain that state inmates should not be permitted to repeatedly appeal their cases in federal court. In recent years, the Supreme Court has tightened the law to end most such repeat appeals but the Republicans propose to end them entirely, except where the inmate can show convincing new evidence that he is innocent.
* Expand the “good faith exception” to warrantless police searches. The Supreme Court in 1984 ruled that criminal evidence can be used if police followed a search warrant that was later declared defective.
The Republicans say that they want to expand this idea to allow the use of evidence in situations where police are “following proper procedures” but a judge later concludes that they erred.
Depending on how this proposal is defined, it could prove highly controversial.
* Encourage longer prison terms for violent offenders. The Republicans want to increase spending to $10.5 billion over six years to build more prisons and to require states to keep convicts behind bars until they have served 85% of their sentences.
* Punish those who use guns in committing crimes. The “contract with America” proposes a mandatory 10-year prison term for anyone who uses a gun in a crime and a mandatory 20-year term for a second such offense.
The Republicans say they think that their proposals will get wide support in Congress, as well as the signature of President Clinton.
“We hope this will be a bipartisan effort,” McCollum said.
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