FOR MORE than 10 years, federal criminal law reform has been a bipartisan concern in both houses of Congress. A major bill was introduced in the Senate in 1973 by Sens. Roman Hruska and John McClellan, and it has been reintroduced in one form or another in every Congress since. The Senate has passed comprehensive legislation four times, but until last week, the House had acted only once, in 1982, and the president vetoed that bill because of a disagreement over the creation of a drug czar. This year, the bill was passed by the Senate on a vote of 91-1, but in the House it was broken up into a series of individual bills and referred to a half-dozen subcommittees. There was little hope that a major bill would be passed, but the impasse was broken last Thursday night when House and Senate conferees agreed to add the bill to the continuing resolution.
The two most important reforms contained in the legislation involve bail procedures and sentencing guidelines. Judges will be able to refuse to release defendants before trial if they pose a danger to the community, but will not be able to detain a person simply because he could not meet a high money bail. Sentencing guidelines are to be devised by a bipartisan commission charged with reducing sentence disparity in the federal courts. Parole will be abolished, but it is expected that realistic, shorter but certain sentences would be imposed.
The bill also provides changes in the insanity defense, shifting the burden of proof to the defendant and limiting the use of the defense to those who are unable to understand the nature and wrongfulness of their acts. Penalties for drug offenses and labor racketeering are raised, and the government's authority to seize the profits of organized crime operations is increased. A program of federal grants to localities for justice assistance programs is created; armed career criminals can be prosecuted expeditiously in federal courts, and victims' assistance programs are improved. Lawyers representing indigent criminal defendants in federal court will get a raise, and the attorney general will be given new powers to coordinate federal drug enforcement programs. The bill does not contain controversial provisions on the death penalty, the exclusionary rule or habeas corpus petitions.
It is true that the administration has sought this major legislation and has given it high priority. But the victory does not belong to one party. Not a single Democrat voted against the bill in the Senate, and members of both parties were in the forefront of efforts to get it passed. Special credit goes to Sens. Thurmond, Biden, Kennedy and Laxalt, who shepherded the bill through the Judiciary Committee more than once and studied, shaped and compromised it to win bipartisan support. The bill that is about to be approved is one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching pieces of legislation in a decade. It is especially important, therefore, that both parties share the responsibility and the credit for its passage.