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President urges Congress to limit lifetime terms to violent criminals


LONDON, Ohio -- President Clinton is calling on Congress to trim back the so-called three-strikes-and-you're-out provisions of its pending crime bill, saying that life imprisonment for repeat offenders should be reserved for those whose crimes "threaten other people's lives."

Speaking here at an event that closely resembled a George Bush rally during the 1988 presidential campaign -- complete with the Pledge of Allegiance and a tableau of more than 100 uniformed officers posed behind him -- Mr. Clinton yesterday outlined the provisions he hoped would be included in the crime bill now being fashioned in Congress.

Most of the elements he listed have become standard Clinton fare: more money to help local jurisdictions hire 100,000 new police officers and improve security at schools, boot camps for nonviolent offenders that would clear more prison space for violent criminals, more prison space overall and a ban on certain types of assault weapons.

And, as he has done before, Mr. Clinton endorsed a federal death sentence for killers of police officers and reminded his audience that as Arkansas governor he oversaw several executions.

But amid the calls for more prisons and longer sentences, he also issued a carefully worded but unmistakable call for Congress to rethink some of the provisions approved by the Senate last fall in its version of the crime bill.

Mr. Clinton said he supported the three-strikes concept, which would permit courts to impose life sentences for certain repeat offenders. But, he added, "We shouldn't litter it up with every offense in the world."

Instead, he said, Congress should focus on identifying and punishing "the very small percentage of the total criminal population" who commit a disproportionate share of the nation's violent crime.

Mr. Clinton's remarks, delivered at a police training academy alongside a 5,000-inmate prison in this small central Ohio town, were his first acknowledgment of what his aides had been saying privately: that he should scale back the unqualified endorsement he gave the three-strikes proposal during last month's State of the Union Address.

The speech also provided his first public response to complaints from some congressional leaders and others that he has done too little to restrain Congress' impulse to react to the mounting fear of crime nationwide by passing laws that have not been thought out carefully enough.

Critics, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., have focused on provisions that would transfer large numbers of crimes from state to federal jurisdiction and at the three-strikes proposal.

The crime bill passed by the Senate last fall contains two separate three-strikes provisions. Either one would permit the courts to impose life sentences for criminals convicted a third time of certain kinds of felonies. In both cases, the crimes that would qualify are considerably less severe than those usually considered dangerously violent. One, for example, would be a purse-snatching in which a victim was knocked to the ground.

The House has not yet passed a three-strikes bill, although it may do so next month, perhaps as part of a larger crime package.

Mr. Clinton's cautious language on the bill, coupled with the imagery of a stage filled with uniforms and the references to the death penalty, illustrated the delicate political balance he must strike on the issue.

Much to the consternation of Republican strategists, Mr. Clinton has taken on the tough-on-crime mantel that traditionally has been worn by the GOP.

At the same time, however, he has struggled to keep the debate from swinging so far to the right that it would deepen the divisions between him and some of his constituencies, particularly blacks and liberals, many of whom believe that some provisions in the Senate bill are too punitive.

Yesterday's speech was designed, in part, to address that problem and to give the president an opportunity to tell Congress what he hopes to see in the bill it finally passes. The president also used the opportunity to mend relations with Mr. Biden, taking the senator with him on Air Force One and publicly praising his leadership on crime issues.

Mr. Clinton has been hoping for quick passage of a crime bill designed to his liking that would provide some momentum for the administration as it enters what is certain to be an arduous spring- and summer-long debate over his health care proposals.

The drive for quick passage of the bill, however, has been complicated by resistance in the House, where some liberals and members of the Congressional Black Caucus oppose key parts of the Senate bill.

Mr. Clinton has tried to prod the House leadership into acting quickly but has been wary of pushing too hard and offending congressional sensibilities. In his speech, he seemed about to issue a deadline for Congress but stopped short.

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