FIRST THERE WAS S.1 -- the 1973 bill to revise the federal criminal code. It died in the Senate. Then came Son of S. 1 -- the 1977-78 version, which removed most of S.1's draconian provisions. It passed the Senate but died in the House. Now comes the third generation -- inevitably, Grandson of S.1 -- in which both houses of Congress seem to be getting together for the first time in the 13-year-long effort to modernize the criminal law.
The features of this new bill have not yet been revealed. But its general shape, described by Rep. Robert F. Drinan last Wednesday, suggests that this Congress may be able to succeed where the last three failed. After 100 days of detailed -- and unpublicized -- work, Rep. Drinan's subcommittee has reached an agreement on a bill much like that which the Senate approved in 1978.
This is a remarkable turnabout for that subcommittee. Last year, it labored mightily and produced a mouse -- a revision of the criminal law that did little more than just existing provisions in alphabetical order. This year, it has adopted the view held by most legal scholars that the whole federal criminal law needs rewriting to 1) eliminate redundancies and conflicts and 2) establish a logical framework for the laws that remain on the books.
This broad approach, first suggested by the Brown Commission in 1970, has been the one consistent element in the various versions of S.1 By agreeing to accept it, the House subcommittee has taken the critical step toward turning some form of the commission's recommendations into law.
It is obvious from what Rep. Drinan has said that his subcommittee's bill will differ considerably in its details from that approved by the Senate last year. But Sen. Edward Kennedy, the cheif proponent of criminal-law reform on Capitol Hill, has never claimed the bill he sponsored last year was perfect. It seems possible that key differences can be resolved or compromised if the spirit of cooperation evident in Wednesday's press conference is maintained.
There is still a long way to go. Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Drinan plan to introduce their latest versions of S.1 in September and hope to have them ready for floor debate by the end of the year. If they can meet that timetable, then early next year Congress may be able to end this long discussion of criminal-law reform, which it instigated when it created the Brown Commission 13 years ago.