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HR-4079: A National Crime Emergency?

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, it does. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Jr., resigned his seat, leaving President Bush to name an even more reactionary successor. Not only will the pro-choice Roe v. Wade ruling fall by the wayside, making life for women increasingly difficult, but we behind bars can expect an even faster rollback of gains won by prisoners as a result of their struggles during the late `60's and early `70's.

The growing reactionary trend is not limited to the judicial arena, either. On the legislative front we are being confronted with a pair of draconian crime bills that make past legislative outrages look like liberal blessings.

Both the U.S. House and Senate have major anti-crime bills pending. In mid-July the Senate passed and sent on to the House a bill authorizing capital punishment for 32 different offenses - from treason to killing a nuclear regulatory inspector (watch out all you would be killers of nuclear regulatory inspectors). The Senate would also limit the appeals of death-row prisoners, making for quicker state-sanctioned murders; expand the police powers of the FBI; authorize massive funding for the building of new prisons, etc.

While the Senate's anti-crime bill has received a lot of media attention; the House crime package has largely been ignored. We will now take a brief peek at a few of its features. In doing so, remember this is only a bill, not the law - yet.

The House bill (HR 4079) starts out by declaring a national crime emergency similar to a wartime mobilization. Section 101(a) & (b) states: "A federal court shall not hold prison or jail conditions unconstitutional under the eight amendment," and that such court "shall not place an inmate ceiling on any Federal, State, or local detention facility..."

HR 4079 would authorize the use of military installations to house the increasing numbers of state and federal prisoners, including the use of tents. Cost cutting in building new prisons is mandated, "especially expenditures for air conditioning, recreational activities, color televisions, social services, and similar activities." Punishments are also increased, and good time credits and parole considerations are eliminated for certain categories of crimes.

For all you lovers of capitalism there is a special treat: "The Attorney General may contract with private persons to construct, own and operate Federal prison facilities; or ...operate Federal prison facilities owned by the United States." He is also authorized to "enter into contracts with private businesses for the use of inmate skills (read slave labor) that may be of commercial use to such businesses." Section 133(a)

State prisoners filing habeas corpus petitions in federal courts will have a harder time pressing their constitutional claims. There would be a one-year period of limitation form the exhaustion of state remedies which to apply for habeas relief. Once the writ is filed the evidentiary burdens are made more difficult to the prisoner. And if the writ is denied the District Court can no longer issue a certificate of probable cause to appeal. It must be obtained form a circuit judge.

Another provision of the bill would give any state seeking Bureau of Justice Assistance grants a greater priority if the requesting state has passed a law revoking the drivers license, for at least one year, of any person convicted of a state or federal law consisting of the possession of illegal drugs.

There was a House committee meeting on HR 4079 on May 24th. We will try the keep you informed of unfolding developments in this area. A protest is needed.

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