FOR THE FIRST time since it began the project 14 years ago, the House Judiciary Committee is now seriously considering legislation completely rewriting the country's criminal law. One of its subcommittees, headed by Rep. Robert F. Drinan, has hammered out a bill that would give the criminal law the kind of overhaul it needs.
This is a reversal of what had been happening on the Hill ever since Congress authorized and President Johnson appointed a blue-ribbon commission in 1966 to deal with this complex subject. Until Rep. Drinan took over the subcommittee last year, the House had merely toyed with the subject while the Senate Judiciary Committee tried time after time to produce legislation. By jamming a decade of work into more than 200 meetings over 12 months, the Drinan committee may have given criminal law reform the impetus it needs.
There has been general agreement, since at least 1966, that the criminal law needs to be thoroughly rewritten. It is full of contradictions, ambiguities and provisions that have long been obsolete. The problem -- and the reason for the long delay -- is that any resolution of those difficulties carries with it some change in the substance of the law. And there has been no consensus on how the law should be changed.
The latest Senate version, which has been pending on the floor since January, is being actively opposed by both the American Civil Liberties Union and some conservative groups. The ACLU says the bill threatens civil liberties in many ways, especially by creating some new federal crimes, changing the way in which judges determine what sentences to impose and authorizing greater use of preventive detention. The magazine Human Events opposes the bill because, among other things, it lowers penalties on some drug offenses, tightens gun control law and expands the civil rights laws.
These conflicting views underline the compromises the Senate bill contains. Neither of its chief sponsors, Sens. Edward Kennedy and Strom Thurmond, is completely happy with it. But each believes -- from quite different perspectives of what the law ought to be -- that the pulses in the bill outweigh the minuses. Such a judgment depends heavily on the value assigned to the creation of a comprehensive and understandable criminal code in contrast to the chaotic set of laws that now exists. We place a high value on creating this new code and regard certain of the compromises that have been made as unfortunate, but not disastrous to civil liberties. Some of the worst aspects of last year's Senate bill that threatened freedom of speech and of the press have been eliminated.
The bill reported by the Drinan subcommittee has many of the same faults (or virtues). Some, but not all, of the ACLU's objections have been met. That makes it a better bill than the Senate's, more in keeping with the spirit of reform that motivated the blue-ribbon commission's recommendations a decade ago. Although the bill still needs improvement, especially in the area of defining obscenity, it is headed in the right direction. It should be acted on as speedily as possible. This year, finally, Congress could complete work on one of the most ambitious projects it has never undertaken.