In last month's issue of PLN , I reported on President Clinton's crime bill, which he unveiled at an August 11, 1993, press conference. It turns out that a week before this, with considerably less fanfare, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kansas) and House Minority Leader Michel (R-Illinois) introduced the Republican Party's anti-crime package. In many ways it mirrored the democrat's plan.
British writer Graham Greene, in referring to American politics, once commented that the republican and democratic parties were "two empty bottles with different labels." The respective crime bills introduced by each party tends to illustrate this point.
Both plans envision a massive increase in local police hiring funded by the federal government. Both bills expand the death penalty and limit appeals by death row prisoners and would limit the availability of federal habeas corpus review of state imposed convictions. Both would also promote boot camps for you prisoners using closed military bases for that purpose.
However, the major difference between the two plans is that the republicans want to significantly increase prison space and get the federal government into the prison rent a cell business. Clinton's plan does not address the fact that such a massive police increase will surely result in an increase of arrests, convictions and prisoners. The republicans have given the matter some thought.
The republican bill would deal with the rise in state prison populations in several ways. Grants would be available for prison construction and operation; in addition, the federal government would build 10 or more regional prison, each with space for at least 2,500 prisoners, and dedicate at least half that space to use by the states in housing certain kinds of prisoners. In order for a state to avail itself of such a prison, its criminal justice system would have to have the following four features: "(1) truth in sentencing with respect to any crime of violence that is consistent with that provided in the federal system in chapter 229 of Title 18, US Code, which provides that defendants will serve at least 85 percent of the sentence ordered; (2) pretrial detention similar to that provided in 18 USC § 3142; (3) mandatory minimum sentences for firearms offenses, career criminals, repeat or chronic sex offenders, and habitual offenders that, in the attorney general's judgment, are satisfactory for law enforcement purposes; and (4) suitable recognition for the rights of victims, including consideration of the victim's perspective at all stages of the criminal proceedings.
While providing more prison space, the bill "would attempt to limit the federal courts' use of "cap orders" in prison and jail litigation. By such orders the federal courts "are unreasonably endangering the community," the bill declares. Courts would be forbidden to place a ceiling on a place of confinement as an equitable remedy for conditions violating the eighth amendment "unless crowding is inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on particular identified prisoners." Needless to say, this is a standard that the bill's drafters realize is pretty much impossible to meet.
The bill would also create several new federal crimes. It is readily apparent that these laws are aimed at minority youth in the cities. Modeled on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the measure would define "predicate gang crimes" and make it a federal crime to commit such a predicate with the intent to promote or further a criminal street gang's activities or to gain entrance to or maintain or increase one's position in such a gang. RICO itself would be amplified by the addition of several offenses to its list of predicates, including alien smuggling and using minors in a crime. It would also be a federal crime to carry a gun into a school. Penalties would be raised for a number of crimes and restitution would be mandatory rather than with the discretion of the court.
In expanding the death penalty a federal capital murder law would be imposed on the District of Columbia, where citizens recently rejected, by a wide margin, plans to reimpose the death penalty.
What is eventually passed is likely going to include elements of both bills. Attorney general Janet Reno has repeatedly expressed her support for the idea of federal regional prisons to house state prisoners convicted of violent offenses. If past legislative experience is any guide, legislators get into a bidding frenzy of who can be "tougher on crime" by jacking up sentences, building more prisons, etc., this is a lot easier to do than addressing root causes of crime, such as poverty and lack of meaningful jobs. The ruling class is pretty much of the same opinion that there is a need to get bigger clubs (prisons, death penalty, police, etc.) to beat the population into line. The result is going to be a worsening of the general situation of prisoners, poor people, minorities, etc.
The democrats are determined not to be left behind in the "war on crime." Many people automatically assume that democrats have better views favoring prisoners and criminal defendants than republicans. It is worth noting that liberal democratic Texas governor Ann Richards, darling of the liberal chic, has presided over the execution of more prisoners in her term of office than any other governor in the country since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Democratic governor Lawton Chiles of Florida has signed more death warrants than any of his predecessors. Attorney General Janet Reno claims to personally oppose the death penalty yet while a Miami prosecutor sought it in a number of cases. Clinton's own record on this is that he presided over four executions while governor of Arkansas, including that of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain damaged black man. Clinton suspended his campaign and flew back to Arkansas to hold a press conference announcing the execution and how tough he was in not granting clemency. In fact, Clinton never granted clemency to any death row prisoner. The Arkansas prison system is generally considered to be one of the harshest and most brutal in the United States. In short, there doesn't see to be much to look forward to from Clinton and company.
The main problem with the criminal justice policy "debate" is that it isn't a debate. There is no opposing view. Most importantly, the voices of prisoners, their families and loved ones, who are the most affected by these policies, are systematically silenced and excluded from consideration. The mainstream media also does nothing to afford an opportunity to question or challenge the 'lock em up" mentality. The public needs to be educated about criminal justice issues so that steps can be taken towards finding solutions rather than peddling the same failed remedies of the past.
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