THE CRIME bill passed by the Senate this week is being hailed in some quarters as one of the most important achievements of this session. That's hardly the case. Although the bill takes a constructive step in regulating the import and manufacture of semiautomatic weapons, other provisions are dubious. The death penalty, for example, has been extended to cover 34 federal crimes, including some that do not involve violence. While most death sentences are imposed for violations of state law (usually murder) and changes at the federal level may not substantially raise the population on death row, it is discouraging that as executions become more commonplace, opposition to this penalty diminishes.
The bill raises sentences for a number of crimes and imposes a host of new mandatory minimums that may or may not be appropriate in individual cases. It also eviscerates the habeas corpus rights of death row inmates on the grounds that multiple appeals burden the courts. There is no good reason why a prisoner facing a penalty that is so severe and final should not be given every opportunity to have his appeal heard, especially since historically so many appeals have been successful.
The Senate also responds to the savings and loan crisis in its criminal aspects. Financial crimes have traditionally been underpenalized, though some of the S&L scoundrels who have already been tried have been sentenced to as much as 30 years in prison. The Senate would raise the ceiling in some cases to life imprisonment. This is an unnecessarily harsh response to a non-violent crime.
There needs to be a full-fledged federal effort to find and penalize thieves and embezzlers and to recover for the taxpayers some part of the billions of dollars that will have to be spent to bail out depositors. But there's something sanctimonious about voting staggering penalties for fraud as though a handful of crooks were responsible for the whole S&L mess, when most of the losses were due to careless relaxation of regulation. Among the 99 lawmakers who voted for these stiff new penalties were all of those who had intervened on behalf of shady characters when regulators tried belatedly to exert some authority. Reluctant to confront the government's own failure of oversight and will, the Senate finds it easy to join an election year rush to pile on criminal penalties.