The Senate last night passed, 95 to 1, a crime law revision package that would provide fixed sentencing for federal crimes with virtually no parole allowed and would increase barriers to bail for dangerous defendants before trial.
"There is a criminal element in this country that must be taken off the streets," said Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.). "For every criminal you take off the street and lock up, that street is just a little safer."
The only major objections to the bill came from Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), who called it a "budget buster" and charged that it will double the population of the already crowded federal prison system without adding any funding, "exacerbating an already critical situation." His was the lone vote against the measure.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), one of 62 cosponsers of the bill, argued that if the Senate is willing to increase spending on defense it should spend more on the federal criminal justice system.
"Crime is a national defense problem" he said. "You're in as much jeopardy in the streets as you are from a Soviet missile."
The Senate has attached the measure as an amendment to another crime bill already approved by the House in an effort to force the House to deal with the issue. But because of time constraints it is unlikely to be considered by the House in this session even though many parts of it are widely supported. The bill is sure to be reintroduced next year.
Earlier yesterday the Senate voted 93 to 1 for the passage of another anti-crime bill, introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), aimed at career street criminals.
The bill would allow the federal government to prosecute any criminal convicted three or more times in state court of robbery or burglary while armed. It would provide a mandatory 15-year-to-life federal sentence, with no parole, in addition to the state sentence.
Specter said yesterday that he has been assured by Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), chairman of the House subcommittee on crime, that he will push that bill in the House during the lame-duck session.
The crime bill would provide tough new mandatory sentencing for any federal crime committed with a firearm. On the first offense the criminals would receive an additional mandatory sentence of two to 10 years. On the second offense the penalty would jump to five to 25 years.
Parole would not be allowed, and the judge could not suspend the sentence or allow it to be served concurrently.
The legislation also would address the problem of disparity in sentencing by setting up a seven-member sentencing commission, subject to review by Congress. That commission would draw up guidelines for the courts to use in sentencing. Any court that imposed a sentence outside those guidelines would be required to explain it.
"I've always had difficulty explaining to my black clients why they went to jail longer than my white clients," said Biden, defending the change in the law. "If you're poor and black, you go to jail longer for the same crime than if you're white and middle class."
The legislation would extend federal protection to senior White House staffers, Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices, making it a federal crime to kill, kidnap or assault those officials.
Penalties for drug-trafficking offenses would be strengthened, with increased fines and prison sentences.
In addition, it would provide major improvements in the criminal forfeiture provisions, making it easier for law enforcement authorities to seize the illicit profits and assets generated by drug trafficking and racketeering.