House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) accused President Bush yesterday of fighting crime with political gimmicks and unveiled a Democratic crime bill that emphasizes drug treatment in prisons, community police patrols and other measures aimed at "stopping crimes before they occur."
The proposal by House Democrats is designed to shift the focus of debate away from simply imposing harsher punishments on criminals toward innovative ideas to prevent crime, said Gephardt and Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House crime subcommittee.
"We have a president who fights crime with photo opportunities and bumper stickers," Gephardt said at a news conference. "Democrats are committed to tough law enforcement. . . . But we go farther."
House staff aides noted that the measure also is designed to appeal to conservatives by including many of the tough law-and-order provisions contained in the crime bill passed by the Senate 71 to 26 on July 11.
Among them are longer mandatory sentences for gun offenses and the death penalty on 52 additional crimes, including terrorism, drive-by shootings and large-scale drug trafficking even when no murders have occurred. The number of death penalty provisions is slightly higher than those in the Senate version, and more than the 48 asked for by Bush.
"It's just a bidding war," said one Democratic aide of the new death penalty crimes included in the bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) "had to have more than the president, so we had to have more than the Senate."
With murder rates climbing in most major cities, Bush has proclaimed crime as one of his top legislative priorities and challenged Congress to pass a bill that would add federal death penalty crimes, stiffen sentences, curb death row appeals, and permit courts to consider evidence that had been improperly seized by police.
But some Democratic critics have charged that most of these proposals are largely irrelevant, because most street crime is prosecuted and punished at the local level. As a result, Schumer said, the House Democrats' proposals are aimed at funding preventive and "common sense" programs for states and localities.
These include $100 million in grants to the states for drug treatment programs in prisons, $200 million for states to develop boot camps, "swamp camps" and other shock incarceration programs for youthful offenders, and $150 million for "community policing" programs that would assign more officers to walking the streets.
It also includes $300 million for cities or regions that are designated "drug emergency" areas. In addition, it goes beyond the Senate bill's gun control proposals by banning more semiautomatic assault weapons as well as sharply restricting the bullet capacity of detachable magazine clips.
Schumer said the proposals are based on ideas that have been tried in some localities and have been shown to work, yet never funded at the national level. "The amazing thing as I study the crime area is there are lots of good innovations in different corners of the country, but somehow they don't spread," he said.
But some conservatives have questioned the effectiveness of some of Schumer's proposals, such as drug treatment in prisons. To fund them, the Democratic bill leaves out some of the proposed increases included in the Senate version and backed by the White House, including $260 million for more agents for the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal law enforcement agencies and $700 million for more federal prisons.
Schumer's crime subcommittee is scheduled to begin voting on the measures next week. At the same time, the House civil and constitutional rights subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), will take up a separate part of the crime bill that will include a controversial "fairness in death sentencing" provision. The measure would allow minorities to challenge a death sentence as discriminatory if statistics show that minorities account for a disproportionate number of death penalty convictions and executions in a particular jurisdiction.
The administration remains adamantly opposed to that. Asked about the Gephardt-Schumer proposals, Lee Rawls, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs and the Bush administration's chief lobbyist on the crime bill, said they were "no substitute" for the president's proposals. But, he added, "to the extent that they have ideas that would supplement the president's package, we'd be prepared to look at them."