The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a long-debate revision of the nation's federal criminal law that for a decade has provoked dispute all across the political spectrum in Congress.
The measure, adopted by a 12 to 2 vote, would severely restrict the most awesome power the law gives the person over another - the license of a judge to take life or liberty and confiscate wealth.
It also departs from the doctrine that a prime goal of imprisonment is reliabilitation of offenders, and it would drastically scale down the role of the federal porole system, which has come under increasing attack as being arhitrary and ineffective.
The proposed law, which has yet to be considered by the House, judiciary Committee, would impose new restrictions on the almost unfeltered power of judges to use dicretion in fixing sentences.
It would do this by creating a Federal Sentencing Commission that would write sentencing guidelines for various crimes as nearly " [WORD ILLEGIBLE] " sentence guidelines and any maximium prison term set in the guidelines could not exceed the minimum by more than 25 per cent. Discretion in imposing lines would also be limited.
Federal prisoners would not be eligible for parole, unless this was specifically requested by the sentencing judge.
The proposed code would simplify a confusing jumble of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] laws that have been scattered over the statute books for two centuries, many of them [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and confounding to federal judges who must follow them.
The vote on the new criminal code come after weeks of heated debate in committee markup sessions, in which dozens of substantive amendments were thrown at Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the key arcitect of the measure, along with Sen. John I. McClellan D-Ariz.).
The bill is the product of 11 years of dispute between Senate liberals and conservatives, and is the successor to teh extremely controversial "S.I" criminal code bill that died in committee last year.
Liberal critics, who labeled S1 a "blueprint for a police state," had claimed that its provisions on espionage and sabotage, for example, were so broad that they would create a new National Secrets Act and outlaw any public demonstration, no matter how orderly.
The authors of the new measure, dubbed "Son of S 1" by the still critical liberal organizations, deleted or modified many of the old bill's most controversial features, including expansion of the death penalty nad abolition of insanity as a defense in federal criminal trials.
In the end, liberals and conservatives joined in an unusual coalition to send the bill to the floor of the Senate early next year.
The only dissenting votes were cast by Sens. James Abourezk (D.S.D.) and James B. Allen (D-Ala.), idoeologcal oppositess.
Approving votes were cast by a pot-pourri of senators that included James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), a chairman; Kennedy, McClellan, Birch Bayh (D-In., Joseph R. Bdien Jr., (D-Del.), Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), Strom Thurmond (R.S.C.), Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.)
Absent were Sens. William L. Scott (R-Va.), Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) and John C. Culver (D-Iowa).
The fragile coalition that had been put together more than a year ago by Kennedy and McClellan showed signs of weakening in the past week when a number of amendments were submitted by committee liberals.
The most volatile of these was a proposal by Bayh to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, which last Thursday was adopted by the commitee.
While the measure would have no effect on state laws, under which virtually all marijuana arrests are made, it was viewed as being a bellwether for local legislatures and was bitterly contested by committee conservatives.
As a result, the committee reversed itself Tuesday night andvoted to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a criminal act act, punishable by fines, but providing for expunging criminal records for an offender's first three infractions.
While that represented a compromise between Bayh and Hatch, who said he would vote against the bill if it included decriminalization of marijuana, the Indiana senator managed to gain approval of eight significant amendments supported by liberals.
They included restrictions on jailing news reporters who violate prior restraint orders found to be invalid, reduction of criminal contempt penalties, provision for rape charges against a spouse when abusive force or threats are used, and charges in the Youth Corrections Act that encourage alternatives in incarceration for youthful first offenders.
Another provision approved by the committee is a program to compensate victims of violent crimes, with payment's up to $50.000.