Two garbled sentences in yesterday's editorial, "Sign the Crime Bill," should have read: "It is expected that only about 500 of these cases would be moved to federal court in the first year. If the cooperative arrangement doesn't work, adjustments can be made later."
THE PRESIDENT has before him a crime bill put together during the closing hours of the last Congress, and soon he must decide whether or not to sign it. It is not the comprehensive legislation Congress has been struggling with for years, a revision of the entire federal criminal code. The controversial issues of bail and sentencing reform were put off for consideration in April. But even without these key items, the bill is an important step in the federal war on crime, and should be signed.
The bill, which was passed by large majorities in both houses, contains a grant program to help states combat crime, increases penalties for drug offenses and makes drug tampering a federal crime. It also contains two other provisions to which the Justice Department now raises objections. The first is a "career criminal" provision put in by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), formerly the district attorney of Philadelphia. The measure would give federal courts jurisdiction to try certain criminals--those charged with burglary or robbery with a firearm who have two prior convictions for such crimes-- but only if the local prosecutor and the U.S. attorney agree. The purpose is to shift some of the worst offenders--basically the 10 percent of those arrested, who account for 70 percent of the serious felonies--to the federal system, where there is less backlog, a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence and more available prison space.
The Justice Department had enthusiastically supported Sen. Specter's original proposal, but balks now because the compromise that was enacted requires the consent of local prosecutors to the transfer of jurisdiction. It is expected that only about 500 of these cases would be moved to federal court in the first year. If the cooperative arrangement doesn't work, adjustments can be made later. Certainly this innovation, designed to deal with the most dangerous criminals quickly and effectively, is worth a try.
The second provision to which the Justice Department raises objections was introduced by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.). This section of the bill creates a Cabinet-level office to direct and coordinate national and international efforts to stop drug trafficking. Sen. Biden is concerned that jurisdiction over narcotics control is spread throughout the government involving not only the Justice Department, the DEA, INS and the FBI but also the Treasury, the Customs Service, IRS, the State Department and even the CIA. One person should be in charge overall, he argues, and that person should be a high-level official.
It is easy to see why the attorney general might object to this coordination in an area where the Justice Department regards itself as primary, but nothing in the ew law would preclude the president from choosing someone who is already in the Cabinet for this new responsibility and authority. Even Vice President Bush, who, after all, coordinated the special drug enforcement task force in Florida on behalf of the White House, should be considered. Surely, something acceptable to all the executive agencies concerned could be worked out.
Because this bill was enacted by the last Congress, a presidential veto cannot be overridden. Work would have to begin all over again, and agreements to move to consideration of bail reform and sentencing revisions would be jeopardized. It would be extremely unfortunate if programs that the administration wants and needs go down the drain because of objections that can be handled with a little good will and imagination. The president should sign the bill.