Fresh from victories for other parts of their agenda, House Republicans moved ahead Tuesday with their pledge to undo the $30 billion anti-crime law passed last year and supported by President Clinton.
Over the next several days, the House will debate and probably pass legislation to shift billions of dollars from community crime prevention to prison-building programs.
Other parts of the crime package would require states to keep violent prisoners locked up for longer periods or risk the loss of federal aid to build new penitentiaries.
And instead of specifying that federal money be used for 100,000 new police officers, the GOP’s bill would set up a $10 billion block grant that local law enforcers largely could spend as they please.
“We should not be telling communities how to combat crime,” said Florida Rep. Bill McCollum, chief architect of the GOP’s crime legislation. “These are decisions that they are best qualified to make.”
Debate began Tuesday on the first of six anti-crime bills the House will consider over the next week to revamp the 1994 law.
The first bill, a victim restitution act, was approved on a 431-0 vote. It would require that those convicted of a federal crime pay damages to their victims. It would also give federal courts the authority to order restitution for injured people other than the victim.
More controversial will be GOP efforts to shift federal money from prevention programs. The price tag for the Republican bill - $30 billion over five years - would be the same as under existing law, but the emphasis would shift to enforcement and imprisonment.
Federal funding in the existing law apportions 45 percent of the money for law enforcement, 32 percent for new prisons, and 23 percent for prevention.
Under the GOP’s proposals, some of the prevention programs - such as a special court for non-violent drug offenders and grants to cities for remedial education, job-training and drug-abuse programs - would be eliminated. The money for those programs would be shifted to states to help build prisons.
Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who led the fight last year for passage of the president’s crime bill, complained Tuesday that the Republican rewrite “just doesn’t make any sense. The American people don’t want us to rip up that bill we passed last year.”
He charged that the Republicans were trying to score “cheap political points” by claiming their version of the bill was better than Clinton’s.
“It reminds me of one group of kids in a schoolyard taunting other kids: `Nyah, nyah, ya-nyah nyah, ours is better than you-oors,”’ Schumer mocked.
In the new package of bills, the Republicans would provide $10.5 billion for state and regional prisons, with the bulk of the money going to states that agreed to keep violent offenders in jail for at least 85 percent of their sentences.
Some penal officials say that even with the federal money, they could not afford to build and staff enough prisons to comply with that “truth-insentencing” requirement.
Under the 1994 crime law, $7.9 billion was set aside for prison construction, with less stringent requirements for length-of-sentence imprisonment.
Beyond that, the GOP will bring up legislation this spring to repeal a ban on military-style assault weapons and to federalize all crimes committed with a gun.
The last proposal would impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for conviction of drug or violent crimes involving guns.
Critics have complained that this would swamp the already overburdened federal courts with thousands of gun-crime cases that are handled by state courts.