After more than 100 little-noticed meetings to draft a House version of comprehensive new federal criminal code, Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.) and the members of his Judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice grabbed a moment in the spotlight yesterday.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D. Mass.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, incoming Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), the House Judiciary Committee chairman, and several GOP members took turns praising the work of Drinan and his subcommittee.
The news conference was called, Drinan said later, to show that there's a new consensus on the need for full code revision, although no such bill has been introduced yet in either chamber.
The ceremony marked a shift in the House position from the last session of Congress, when the same subcommittee issued a report concluding that an omnibus revision bill was "neither essential nor desirable."
The struggle to recodify the inconsistent and, in many instances,outdated federal criminal code has lasted more than a decade since the so-called Brown Commission began studying the issue in 1967.
Last year the Senate passed a Kennedy-sponsored bill that languished and finally died in the House, in large part because of the opposition of Drinan's predecessor, Rep. James R. Mann (D-S.C.).
Rep. Abner J. Mikva D-I11.), who has been nominated for a federal judgeship, noted that many substantive differences between the Drinan and Kennedy bills "are today being swept under the rug in peace and harmony."
Drinan testified against several provisions of the Senate-passed bill last year, saying it "reflects confused policy choices, incoherent approaches to crime and an array of provisions which can only bring confusion and injustice into federal criminal law."
"Hell, in any major bill there are going to be differences," Drinan said. "You can't settle them all . . . There are still some booby traps along the way, and changes are inevitable."
John Shattuck, director of the American Civil Liberties Union office in Washington, said, "It is premature to judge what progress has been made, because no bills have been introduced."
The ACLU strongly opposed some sections of last year's Senate bill, which, Shattuck said, "We continue to regard as an unacceptable and damaging compromise of civil liberties."
A Kennedy aide said that this year's version of the Senate bill will drop some sections distasteful to the ACLU.
Both Drinan and Kennedy said that the bills will be introduced after Labor Day, be subject of hearings and markup in the fall and, they hope, be ready for floor debate by the first of the year.
The bill Drinan outlined yesterday would consolidate overlapping provisions. For instance, 100 current theft and fraud provisions would be reduced to seven basic offenses.
The proposal also would contain new provisions for dealing with organized crime and public corruption, as did last year's Senate bill, Drinan said. Likewise, it provides for what Drinan termed "truth in sentencing," whereby defendants would serve the full prison term imposed by a judge.
There is also a section in the House bill setting up an appeals process for allegedly excessive sentences. But, unlike the Senate bill, the House bill now doesn't allow the government to appeal what it considers a too-lenient sentence.
In a major difference from the Senate bill, the Drinan subcommittee has narrowed, rather than broadened, the federal conspiracy statute.