S. 1, AS THE BILL to revise the federal criminal laws has become known, has a longer history than is decent. It has been before Congress, in one form or another, since 1971. Work on it began five years before that, and it embodies an idea that developed in the 1950s. It is back again with us this year, stripped of most of its controversial parts and assigned a different number. Perhaps the combination of the two will create a legislative climate in which something definitive can happen to this bill at long last.
What is most impressive about this year's version of S. 1 is its sponsorship. Instead of fighting over various parts of the bill, as they have in years past, Sens. John L. McClellan and Edward M. Kennedy have produced a massive compromise. Each has dropped many of the proposals he liked best but which the other thought unacceptable, and they have found a way to get together on other provisions on which they disagreed just last fall. That must not have been easy for either senator to do, given the strong feelings held by the constituencies that have lined up behind them - the civil libertarians urging Sen. Kennedy on and the law and order people supporting Sen. McClellan. But it strikes us an example of the way in which legislation of this magnitude has to be handled, particularly since its new form also has won the support of Attorney General Griffin Bell.
While their efforts have cut the text of the bill by more than 50 per cent, it is still an unusually long and complicated measure. That is because it codifies, for the first time in the nation's history, all of the existing federal criminal law while changing some of it. Almost everyone accepts the idea that the law needs codifying, but various groups have seen this as an ideal opportunity to make fundamental changes. Most, but not all, of those changes have now been deleted so that what remains is more the rewriting of legislation that is already on the books than the creation of new legislation.
No doubt there are still parts of the bill that some will consider objectionable. For example, it alters drastically the discretion federal judges now have in imposing sentences on criminals, and it decriminalizes - as far as federal law is concerned - the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But the two senators have reduced the areas of potential conflict to a handful, and Congress ought to be able to deal with these in a rational manner. It may be that some provisions will have to be changed once there has been time to analyze all of the 300 or so pages that remain in the bill. But our impression now is that this package is one that deserves to be passed and will be worth all the years of work that went into it.