IT IS OFTEN the case when legislation is patched together in the closing hours of a Congress, that some terrible things get enacted into law. But the broad crime control bill that was passed by both houses of Congress at the very end of the session is a different story. Both houses had passed bills full of death penalty additions and civil liberties reductions. But at the last minute, in order to save the larger bill of which these provisions were a part, all the most controversial sections of the measure were eliminated. What remains and is now on its way to the White House is a decent bill.
The House and the Senate versions of the bill both contained a broad expansion of the federal death penalty, extending it to about 30 additional crimes. These provisions were all deleted in conference as were proposals to cut back the right of habeas corpus in federal courts and to amend the exclusionary rule. As part of the bargain, two good proposals relating to assault weapons and racial factors in capital punishment were also lost, but overall the stripped-down bill is far better than either version before the conference.
The final bill, still hundreds of pages long, retains many worthwhile reforms. A major provision addresses the S&L scandal, stiffening the penalties for white collar crooks. Another section deals with victims' rights, improving current law in this area. Controls are imposed on steroids and on a new form of dangerous drug known as "ice." The number of FBI agents assigned to fighting drugs will be doubled, 1,000 new agents will be added to the DEA, and federal aid to local law enforcement will be doubled, up to $900 million. New correctional options will be explored and tested, and the Sentencing Commission will study the operation of mandatory minimum sentences and their effectiveness and impact on prison systems.
Undoubtedly, the long-running dispute about capital punishment will be resumed in the new Congress, and the administration will again press for habeas corpus changes and tougher sentences in general. For this year at least, however, there is a truce, and the most repressive and constitutionally dubious proposals have been set aside.