An Appreciation of Arlen Specter: Pragmatist on Criminal Justice


Arlen Specter, the big-city-prosecutor-turned U.S. Senator, may have been the most influential single member of Congress on criminal-justice issues over the last three decades.

Specter, who was defeated in a Pennsylvania primary election two years ago, died last weekend at 82.

While he has been the subject of numerous tributes and memorials, few have focused on his often unappreciated role in reshaping the nation’s criminal justice system.

Specter owed his stature to a combination of factors.

Entering the Senate from an active career as District Attorney in Philadelphia, he was already knee-deep in anticrime issues during the 1980s and early 1990s—a time when urban violence was heading for its most serious toll in any decade in modern times.

When Specter joined the Senate in 1981 as a Republican, his party had not only became a majority in that body but controlled the White House. Yet as a moderate, he enjoyed good relations with Democrats, especially the young senator from his neighboring state of Delaware, Joseph Biden, who also was interested in crime issues.

Biden interrupted his campaign for re-election as Vice President to speak at Specter’s funeral on Tuesday. The Vice President told The Crime Report, “Without Arlen Specter, my 1994 Crime Bill and Violence Against Women Act would not be law today.”

Unlike most members of Congress who flit from issue to issue or who leave Washington after a term or two, Specter maintained his strong interest in legal issues until the end of his long service, even maneuvering to chair the Senate Crime and Drugs Subcommittee at the end of his last term after he had pulled off an unusual switch from the Republican to Democratic parties.

A Legal Scholar

“He was a legal scholar and a workhorse,” says Paul Michel, a Specter aide in the 1980s who later became a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

“He often worked on issues that didn’t bring him press coverage or political contributions, and he did it more than anybody else.”

Two of Specter’s major accomplishments in his early Senate career were the Armed Career Criminal Act and saving the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which exists to this day.

The Armed Career Criminal Act was a precursor to modern-day “three strikes and you’re out” laws. It allowed federal prosecutors to bring charges against people charged with local gun cases who had two previous felonies on their records— essentially converting a state crime into a federal offense, which presumably would be treated more harshly.

The Ronald Reagan administration opposed this extension of federal power, but Specter eventually won its passage in a major federal anticrime law in 1984.

On the juvenile justice front, Specter became chairman of a Senate subcommitee on juvenile crime and held hearings on the issue just as the Reagan White House was trying to kill the juvenile justice agency.

Specter also won a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and managed to keep the agency in business through a combination of keeping the juvenile crime issue in the public eye and behind-the-scenes horse trading over spending.

From his days serving on a Nixon-era federal commission on criminal justice standards and goals, Specter was a “strong and vocal critic of excessive plea bargaining,” recalls his former adviser Michel, who said the senator influenced Justice Department guidelines for its prosecutors on when to accept guilty pleas.

Although many of Specter’s views reflected those of hard-nosed prosecutors, one of his main strengths was to reflect “pragmatic views of what would work in the real world of criminal justice,” says a congressional staff member who watched Specter operate for many years.

He worked particularly closely with Biden and current Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, like Specter a former prosecutor. Chairman Leahy told The Crime Report, “Arlen and I knew each other before the Senate, as prosecutors, and we built on that bond when we came to the Senate. We both also brought our prosecutorial experience and insights to our work on the Judiciary Committee, where we served together for 30 years. It’s part of what made each of us so keen about the Senate’s oversight role. Arlen had seen and done a lot in Philadelphia when it comes to crime and the criminal justice system, and he was always involved whenever laws were written, rewritten or reviewed by our committee.”

Specter was very much interested in providing meaningful work for federal prisoners and in improving inmate re-entry into society.

“He was a champion of correctional education and was a key sponsor of the Second Chance Act,” which provided federal aid to prisoner re-entry projects, says Ronald Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Weich once worked for Specter in the Senate, later advising Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and serving as Attorney General Eric Holder’s chief legislative aide.

Supported Death Penalty

Weich and Michel noted several of Specter’s other notable issues: working for restoration of the federal death penalty and for expansion of enforcement of U.S. laws outside this country’ borders.

“He had to overcome lots of inertia and resistance to convince others that our criminal law could have extraterritorial reach,” says Michel.

Specter focused on U.S. efforts to prosecute terrorists in the 1990s, long before the September 11, 2001 attacks. He was heavily involved in formulating the USA Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, among other significant laws.

To be sure, Specter’s views were not entirely popular.

Some on both the liberal and conservative side took exception to the Armed Career Criminal Act’s role in “federalizing” state criminal law, for example. And his prickly personality limited his impact.

“He could have been even more successful if he hadn’t been so abrasive,” said one Senate staff member.

Specter’s role near his career’s end as one of the dwindling band of Senate moderates should not be interpreted as meaning that he could not make up his mind on issues and wanted to split the difference between liberals and conservatives, says his former assistant Michel.

Rather, his legacy is his focus on practical concerns that many legislators don’t devote their time to pursuing.

“No Senator was more trusted by colleagues for a deep understanding of the range of criminal justice issues of his era,” Michel says.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and a Wshington-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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