Biden's Attack On Crime


Washington. -- Sen. Joe Biden's omnibus crime bill contains several sections that are good, several other sections that are mostly makeweight, and one section that is a real ringer. The Senate is now working on the bill. A great deal of work needs to be done.

This indigestible piece of legislation, S. 1241, runs to 245 pages of text containing 27 different titles. Six pages are devoted just to an index. The bill deals variously with death sentences, terrorist activities, drive-by shootings, assault weapons, drunk driving, habeas corpus proceedings and the admissibility of evidence in federal courts. It all adds up to more than senators can chew.

First, the good provisions: The bill advances a plan to build 10 new regional prisons, at a cost of $600 million, and to create 10 new "boot camps" on abandoned military bases. Sound reasons support both ventures.

The regional prisons would house convicts with histories of long-term drug abuse and records of serious criminal offenses. Such inmates would have less than two years remaining on whatever sentences they are serving. In the regional prisons, they would receive intensive treatment for their drug addiction.

Behind this expensive proposal is the valid idea of treating those inmates with the highest probability of committing new crimes on release. These are the hard-core drug offenders. If they can be turned around, society will save much more than the $100 million a year that would be required to operate the regional centers.

The boot camps are different. Each camp would accommodate 200 to 300 inmates for periods of three to four months. The inmates would be under 25 years of age; they would have been convicted of relatively minor drug offenses. In camp they would undergo "a highly regimented schedule of strict discipline, physical training, work, drill and ceremony characteristic of military basic training." They also would receive remedial education and treatment for drug abuse. Both state and federal prisoners would be eligible.

Considering the magnitude of the drug problem, the regional prisons and the boot camps would have a limited effect, but the concepts make sense. Other provisions relating to the drug traffic also make sense. The bill authorizes another 350 agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration, another 500 officers for the Border Patrol and 350 additional federal prosecutors. An excellent section would punish drug dealers who hire children to peddle their wares.

I am less enthusiastic about a long section of the Biden bill providing for the education of an elite corps of police officers. This has the sweet scent of some staffer's pet idea. The proposed scholarships need a great deal of thought and might better be considered apart from the omnibus measure. In any event, police training historically has been a state responsibility.

Several other provisions also trespass upon the sound principle of federalism. Drunk driving, for one example, is not a federal crime; it is a state crime, but Senator Biden's bill would inject an element of federal punishment. The war on drug abuse, important as it is, ought not to provide a pretext for usurping powers of the states.

Large portions of the bill deal formidably and impressively with imposition of the death sentence, but the provisions are mostly bluster. The real ringer in the bill clanks to attention under the heading of the Racial Justice Act of 1991.

This is Sen. Ted Kennedy's baby. Its whole purpose is to prevent a death sentence from ever being imposed or carried out anywhere. Capital punishment could not be imposed under state or federal law in any jurisdiction where death sentences are disproportionately imposed upon blacks. It is lamentably true that in virtually every jurisdiction blacks are arrested in disproportionate numbers for serious crimes. It follows that convictions of blacks also will be disproportionate. Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Biden are here engaged in a grandstand play.

Senators will debate at length over the extensive provisions having to do with guns. These highly controversial sections, including the Brady Act's seven-day waiting period, may doom the whole measure.

I hope not. Crime in America has reached appalling levels. In my own observation, no other concern is of greater importance to so many people. We need a good bill, but in its present form, the Biden bill isn't it.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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