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Crime show.

Within a week in late June we saw politicians perform a dizzying array of stunts to show how tough they are on crime.

First, Republicans in both houses drafted legislation to end a 150-year practice of separating juvenile from adult offenders.

Forget any hope that kids who commit crimes might be redeemed. "Unfortunately, that philosophy is out of date," said Orrin Hatch, the sponsor of the Senate bill. "We've got to quit coddling these violent kids like nothing is going on.... We'd all like to rehabilitate these kids. But, by gosh, we are in a different age."

What Hatch calls a new age of criminal justice means housing kids with adults who will see them for what they are--vulnerable. Young people who end up in cell blocks with adults are often abused, which is why legislators created protections against housing minors with adult prisoners in the first place.

Studies in several states have shown that juveniles incarcerated with adults have higher rates of recidivism than do teens housed in juvenile facilities.

Meanwhile, the assault on habeas corpus, the constitutional protection against illegal imprisonment, continues apace. The Supreme Court will hear only a few, rare appeals, in "exceptional circumstances," the Justices decided on June 28. But that's too generous for Hatch, Utah Republican, who in addition to jailing youngsters, wants to make sure prisoners don't get a chance to appeal. "I am disappointed that the Supreme Court concluded that prisoners...can continue to file habeas petitions," said Hatch. "If there is a continuation of the problems that led Congress to revise the habeas laws, we will need to revisit this area."

Because of the limits on appeals, people like Dennis Williams, who spent eighteen years in prison on false charges, most of it on death row, are less likely to ever find themselves released. Williams and three others were wrongly convicted of murder.

"The police just picked up the first young black men they could and that was it," said Williams. "They didn't care if we were guilty or innocent."

President Clinton jumped on the tough-guy band-wagon recently with another proposal designed to appeal to popular sentiment. Clinton is proposing a constitutional amendment that will require courts to inform victims when proceedings will occur, permit the victims to attend, and allow them to address the jury on issues of bail, plea bargaining, and sentencing. The amendment will also allow victims to speak at parole hearings. The net effect will be to inject heightened emotion into the courtroom.

According to David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor, current law intentionally attempts to "reduce the emotionalism of a trial and rely on evidence."

But the Clinton amendment is designed to play up the hysteria about crime for crass political reasons.

In the midst of the crackdown, hardly anyone seemed to take note of a recent study--this one by the Rand Corporation--demonstrating that crime prevention is far more effective than long-term incarceration.

But crime prevention lacks pizzazz, and it does not go with the crime show that politicians are putting on to scare up votes.
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Title Annotation:rash of 'tough on crime' legislative action
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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