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Anti-crime bill bites down hard: some lawmakers fear blacks will be punished more severely.

Congress has voted to take a bite out of crime. But will the sharp teeth in the $28 billion omnibus anti-crime bill--whose details were still being negotiated in a House-Senate committee at BE's press time--protect or harm African-Americans?

The answer may depend upon your ideological stance. The Senate and House bills reflect a national desire to prevent crime and increase criminal punishment by hiring 50,000 to 100,000 new police officers, building new prisons and providing community grants for education and youth activities. In addition, some repeat violent offenders will be required to serve life sentences, and dozens of new federal crimes will be created that stipulate the death penalty.

But, the alleged punitive nature of the last two provisions provokes arguments among law enforcement specialists and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

No one questions a call for greater personal and property security, but at what price?

Joseph M. Wright, the former executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), told a House committee that he supports the crime bill--with reservations. He dislikes the bill's "three strikes and you're out" provision, giving three-time felony offenders life sentences automatically. NOBLE says life sentences should be determined by a crime's seriousness.

The prospect of prisons filled with geriatric petty criminals also bothers National Bar Association President Paulette Brown. But Brown's real problem with the crime bill is its expansion of death penalty offenses. As prosecutors gain greater control of sentencing, more minorities will face death, she says. Many CBC members share her opinion.

Consequently, the CBC forced the inclusion of the Racial Justice Act (RJA) into the House bill. The RJA allows defendants to use sentencing statistics to challenge a death sentence as racially discriminatory.

Statistics show prosecutors seek the death penalty more often when defendants are black and victims white than the reverse, which leads many to fear that tougher penalties will strike African-Americans harder.

Predictably, the CBC's sole Republican, Rep. Gary Franks of Connecticut, opposed the RJA, saying social problems are not correctable by defining remedies in black and white terms.

Of course, fewer people face such penalties if crimes are prevented. To that end, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.)--a leading CBC death penalty opponent and third ranking member of the House Judiciary committee--was willing to vote for the House bill, but only after negotiating the inclusion of $4 billion in direct crime prevention aid to high-crime, low-income neighborhoods.

In the long run, finding ways of ensuring that fewer African-Americans are enmeshed in the wrong end of the criminal justice system is preferable to simply making the punishment more severe.
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Author:McCoy, Frank
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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