At long last Congress has completed its Crime Bill odyssey, producing
an expensive, draconian, poorly thought out mess that will do little or
nothing to reduce crime. The result is not as bad as expected, however,
and there are a few bright spots. Crime Bill spending totals $30.2 billion
over 6 years; this money will be spent on four general categories:
- Police: $13.4 billion to hire and train thousands of new officers.
- Prisons: $9.9 billion to build new prisons, boot camps, and facilities
to free space for violent offenders.
- Prevention: $5.5 billion for grants for anti-gang activities and programs
to combat violence against women.
- Anti-drug efforts: $1.4 billion for drug courts and drug treatment
We summarize here the major provisions of the bill that are relevant
to the drug laws:
- Title II provides $7.9 billion in grants to states for prison construction
and modification, and alternative correctional facilities. Grants will
be governed by regulations to be written by the Attorney General. To be
eligible, states must have laws requiring that violent offenders serve
at least 85 percent of the prison time to which they have been sentenced.
Fifty percent of these funds will be reserved for "Truth in Sentencing
Incentive Grants". To be eligible for these funds, states must meet
several criteria, including having a comprehensive correctional plan including
diversion, rehabilitation and post-release assistance programs.
While the Crime Bill's prison funds are targeted at violent offenders,
they are likely to provide a disincentive to states to lighten drug sentences
by easing the prison crowding caused by the drug laws.
- Title VI expands the federal death penalty from two crimes to more
than 50 crimes, including crimes that do not involve murder: espionage,
treason, major drug trafficking even when no death results from the crime,
and attempted murders by "drug kingpins". This section federalizes
offenses that are already capital in many states, and authorizes the federal
government to impose the death penalty even in states like New York which
have no death penalty. Many of these penalties are unconstitutional according
to previous court opinions that have found that the 8th amendment limits
the death penalty to crimes involving murder.
Note that individuals can be convicted solely on the testimony of a
government informant. The testimony of informants is unreliable because
of the incentive they have to obtain convictions: Informants are either
paid a reward by the government, or have been arrested themselves on drug
charges and are usually required to testify to convict others to reduce
their own sentences. Hence, informants have a strong incentive to lie in
order to obtain convictions.
Note also that because the death penalty can be applied to "continuing
criminal enterprises", an individual whom an informant says, for example,
grew 3,000 marijuana plants every year for 20 years is eligible to receive
the death penalty.
- Title VII is the notorious "three strikes you're out" law.
This provision mandates life imprisonment without parole for persons convicted
of three of certain felonies. The third conviction must be on a federal
level for a violent offense. Strikes one and two can be state or federal
convictions, and either strike one or two may be a drug offense carrying
a minimum of 10 years imprisonment.
Title VIII is the hard won "safety valve". This provision
allows certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who would have been
given mandatory minimum sentences to instead be sentenced under the federal
Sentencing Guidelines as long as the guideline is at least a 2-year sentence.
Hence, certain federal defendants will be eligible to avoid mandatory minimum
sentences so long as they have no more than 1 criminal history point (no
criminal record more serious than a misdemeanor conviction for which a
maximum of a 60-day sentence was imposed); did not use violence or a dangerous
weapon or induce others to use violence or a dangerous weapon; the offense
did not result in death or serious bodily injury; were not an organizers,
leaders, managers, or supervisors; and have provided the government all
information concerning the offense prior to sentencing. The last provision
is troubling because it requires individuals to "inform" on others
in order to qualify for the exemption.
Many were disappointed when retroactivity was stripped from the safety
valve as part of a last minute bargain to save the Crime Bill from defeat
in Congress. An effect of the non-retroactive safety valve is that prisoners
serving terms as short as two years will live side by side with people
serving five to ten years for the same offenses. Sentencing reform activists
will be working on retroactivity during the next session of Congress.
Another sentencing reform which made it into the Crime Bill is a provision
which would allow certain drug offenders a one year reduction in sentence
following completion of a 6 to 12 month drug treatment program.
Title XXVII creates a Presidential Summit on Violence and National
Commission on Crime Prevention and Control. This commission includes provisions
for some study of drug policy that could serve the purpose of the commission
called for in the "Hoover Resolution". These provisions include:
examining the root causes of illicit drug use and abuse in the United States,
including compiling existing research regarding those root causes; evaluating
federal, state, and local laws and policies on the prevention of drug abuse,
control of unlawful production, distribution and use of controlled substances,
and the efficacy of sentencing policies with regard to those laws; analyzing
the allocation of resources among interdiction, enforcement, education,
and treatment and rehabilitation; analyzing current treatment and rehabilitation
methods and making recommendations for improvements; identifying any existing
gaps in drug abuse policy that result from the lack of attention to the
root causes of drug abuse; assessing the needs of government at all levels
for resources and policies for reducing the overall desire of individuals
to experiment with and abuse illicit drugs; and making recommendations
regarding necessary improvements in policies for reducing the use of illicit
drugs in the United States.
The commission will be composed of 28 members appointed as follows (assuming
that the commission will not be convened before January 1995 and the House
and Senate remain in democratic control): 10 persons by the President,
not more than 6 of whom shall be of the same major political party. (President
Bill Clinton appoints 6 Democrats and 4 Republicans.); 5 by whoever replaces
Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) in conjunction with Senate
Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Delaware); 4 by Senate Minority
Leader Bob Dole (R-Kansas) in conjunction with the ranking minority member
on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah); 5 by Speaker of
the House Tom Foley (D-Washington) in conjunction with House Judiciary
Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Texas); 4 by the new House Minority Leader,
who will probably be Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), and the ranking minority
member on the House Judiciary Committee, probably Carlos Moorhead (R-California).
At least 1 member appointed by the President, at least 2 members appointed
by the Senate, and at least 2 members appointed by the House must be persons
well-qualified to participate in the commission's examination of the subject
area of the causes of the demand for drugs, with education, training, expertise,
or experience in such areas as addiction, biomedicine, sociology, psychology,
law, and ethnography and urban poverty (including health care, housing,
education, and employment).
The commission is to give its report not later than two years from the
date of its inception, and has been allocated $1.0 million for fiscal year
The Crime Bill actually contains some modest reforms of forfeiture law,
including an annual audit of every State and local law enforcement agency
that receives forfeiture funds, and a requirement that the government pay
state and local property taxes that have accrued from the date of the forfeiture
The full text of the Crime Bill can be found on pages H8772 - H8867
of the Congressional Record dated Sunday, August 21, 1994.
Thanks to NORML, ACLU, FEAR, FAMM and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
for compiling this information.