AFTER STALLING for more than a month about going to conference on the crime bill, House and Senate negotiators are scheduledto sit down in the next few days and put a compromise package together. The aim is to get this turkey to the president before Thanksgiving, but it's nothing to be grateful for. Neither version of the bill is substantially better than the other, and the whole mess should be set aside for the holiday season, if not forever.
The bill is the latest in a string of measures designed not so much to combat crime as to convince the public that legislators are tough on criminals. The theme this year is to cut back on those irritating constitutional rights that sometimes slow down the trial and appeal process, and to provide capital punishment for as many offenders as possible. Both the House and the Senate bills create about 50 new death-penalty offenses, including drug crimes that do not involve a killing, attempted but not completed murders and incidents where death was not caused intentionally but "with reckless disregard for human life." The Senate bill also contains a D'Amato provision that would swamp the federal courts by making any gun murder a federal crime -- most are now state crimes -- punishable by death. This rush to execution is startling and simple-minded, and the stampede must be slowed.
To make convictions easier, there are to be new rules governing searches that would allow the admission of evidence seized "in good faith" but without a valid warrant. Recent Supreme Court decisions and the Senate bill limit this change to situations involving invalid warrants; the House wouldn't even require a warrant, just the good intentions of the police. Once convicted, an offender will have his right to federal court review on habeas corpus severely limited in the House version of the bill and virtually eliminated by the Senate provision.
While the House refused to accept Senate language banning the use of certain semiautomatic weapons, there is still a chance that the conferees might agree to some limitation in this area. There is also hope that a waiting period for the purchase of handguns, which was approved in both houses, will survive the conference. These slow steps to control guns, so badly needed and so ferociously fought, are the only signs in this legislation of real progress in the war against crime. Increasing executions tenfold, federalizing the criminal justice system and trampling the rights of the accused may make lawmakers feel good. But until this country gets the obscene flood of automatic weapons and handguns under control, there will be no peace on the streets.