DRCNet Activist Guide 2/95

New Crime Bill:More of The Same, Only Worse

Riding a tide of voter dissatisfaction, the Republican party took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, promising to swiftly implement the provisions of their "Contract with America." In stark contrast to the contract's promise of smaller, decentralized government, however, the Republican Crime Bill offers increased federalization of the justice system, expanded police powers, and more of the same drug-control strategies that have failed so miserably for so many decades.

Hitting the ground running, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, chaired by Representative Bill McCollum (R-Florida), drafted a crime bill, H.R. 3, which was then divided into six separate bills that were passed by the full house. The most disturbing of the bills is H.R. 666, the Exclusionary Rule "Reform." H.R. 666 would take the teeth out of the fourth amendment by allowing the government to use evidence in court that was obtained in illegal searches (without a warrant), if the police officers involved believed they were acting in "good faith."

H.R. 666 raises the spectre of police going door-to-door, searching houses in neighborhoods where drug activity is suspected (which is everywhere). While results may not reach this extreme, proper police conduct is difficult to assure even with existing fourth amendment protections. In March 1994, Accelyne Williams, a 75-year-old retired priest from Boston, had a fatal heart attack when an anti-narcotics squad knocked down his door, swarmed into his apartment and tackled him to the floor; the Boston police had obtained a "no-knock warrant" on the basis of a report from a paid, confi-dential informant with a history of unreliability. In a debate before the House of Representatives this February 7-8, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) described how the Chicago police force victimized him in an illegal search and seizure: "They did not come with a warrant. They came with weapons pulled, weapons blazing. They shot my door down. Fortunately, I was not at the apartment."

Other members of the House criticized H.R. 666: Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC) declared "If we believe in the Constitution, we will leave it exactly like it is." Norman Mineta (D-CA) said "If we could depend on 'good faith,' Mr. Chairman, then we would not need a Constitution." Joe Moakley (D-MA) read from Revelations, quoting "And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads ... let him who has understanding reckon the number of beast, for it is a human number, its number is 666."

At a conference sponsored by the Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy last December, former Deputy General Philip Heymann called the exclusionary rule "a great bargain," explaining that the rule defeats the prosecution in only a small number of cases (usually drug rather than violent crime cases) but offers a very high benefit in lawful police behavior.

There's little doubt that many conservatives see the danger in this expansion of government power; but in the heat of a political takeover, Republican legislators have held together, following their leaders and sacrificing some individual principles for the sake of a larger agenda. And the Republican crime agenda doesn't stop here. While the House has delayed incorporating increased penalties in its crime legislation, the Senate's crime bill provides for sentences so draconian as to be almost beyond belief. S. 3 would create the following new mandatory minimum sentences:

[Note: We have listed the gun-related sentences in the Senate crime bill for completeness and because they can apply to drug offenses. DRCNet is devoted strictly to drug policy reform and takes no position on gun policy. We do, however, maintain that most gun violence today results directly or indirectly from drug prohibition.]

The bill also makes the safety-valve so narrow that very few could qualify. (The safety-valve is a provision of last year's crime bill that gives judges discretion to exempt certain first-time offenders from 5 or 10 year mandatory minimums.)

The idea of introducing children to drug use or committing acts of gun violence is abhorrent enough that it's easy, even for the liberally-minded, to view such sentences as appropriate punishment for anyone who would commit such dastardly crimes. But a few concrete examples reveal the truth beneath the surface in this legislation:

X grows a single marijuana plant in his closet and also possesses one legally owned and registered gun, which he keeps unloaded. X receives 10 years for possession of a firearm during a felony offense, no possibility of parole, no option afforded the judge to show leniency.

Y sells 1/8 of an ounce of cocaine to a customer somewhere within the city of Boston. According to one Massachusetts attorney, every point in Boston is within 1000 feet of a school, making the entire city of Boston a "drug-free-school-zone, " earning Y a minimum 5 year sentence, no parole, no option afforded the judge to show leniency.

Z, age 21, purchases one marijuana joint at cost from his 17-year-old friend. Z is convicted of involving a minor in a drug transaction, and receives a 10 year sentence, no parole, no option afforded the judge to show leniency.

S. 3 would repeal most crime prevention and drug treatment funding in last year's bill, and eliminate a program under which prisoners who successfully completed a drug treatment program could receive one-year sentence reduc-tions. The bill also repeals the National Commission on Crime Control and Prevention which would, in part, evaluate current drug control policies and make recommendations regarding necessary changes.

What You Can DO?

The action for now is in the Senate. We recommend you write your Senators and ask them to vote against or even filibuster S. 3 because you oppose:

1) abolishment of the exclusionary rule
2) gutting of the old bill's "safety-valve" and other sentencing reductions
3) new mandatory minimum sentences
4) elimination of the Commission on Crime Control and Prevention.

Some points for your letters:

Address for any member of Congress:

You can reach them (or find out who they are) through the Congressional Switchboard, (202) 224-3121.

Much of the information in this article was provided by:

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DRCNet Activist Guide 2/95

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