A bizarre alliance of conservative gun control opponents, liberals and black Democrats joined last week to deal the President a stunning setback: on Thursday, August 11, the House of Representatives voted 225-210 not to bring the Crime Bill to the House floor for a vote. Republicans and conservative Democrats were largely opposed to the Crime Bill's Assault Weapons Ban, while liberal and black Democrats were angered by extensions of the death penalty and the conference committee's rejection of the Racial Justice Act, which would allow defendants to appeal death penalties on the basis of racially discriminatory sentencing.
Since then, President Clinton has been hitting the stump in support of the Crime Bill, starting the very next day at a meeting of the National Association of Police Officers in Minneapolis. There is talk of sending the bill back to the conference committee for further negotiations, but at this point the Crime Bill's fate is unclear.
Though politically damaging to the administration, a failure to pass the Crime Bill would be good for the nation. This $33 million package includes death penalties for drug trafficking, a "three-strikes-you're-out" law that counts non-violent drug offenses, direct criminalization of gang-related activities, and $8 billion for more prison cells. There are, however, a few bright spots, most notably a retroactive safety-valve clause and a Commission on Crime and Violence, which includes the language of H.R. 3100, creating the commission called for in the "Hoover" Resolution (See: New Commission on Crime and Violence?).
The "safety-valve" is a little-known provision of the Crime Bill that would allow federal judges to bypass five and ten year mandatory minimum sentences for certain first-time non-violent drug offenders, allowing them to be sentenced instead under the federal sentencing guidelines established by Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. A retroactive safety valve, according to the Sentencing Commission, would allow about 1,600 current inmates to be released early. A rare alliance of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans formed in support of retroactivity, and the House included a retroactive safety valve in its version of the Crime Bill.
The Clinton administration, wary of a "Willie Horton" scenario, opposed retroactivity, citing, among other reasons, the additional paperwork that would be required of the Justice Department. But vigorous lobbying by supporters of the retroactive safety valve, led by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), won the day, and a retroactive safety valve was agreed upon by the conference committee.
Though it helps only a small number of people, the safety valve is a major victory. Perhaps politicians will start to realize soon that they don't need to just be "tough" on crime -- they can be intelligent too.