In the fall of 1994, the Democrats were about to lose control of the U.S. House of Representatives but they didn't seem to know it. Party leaders had spent much of the year on anticrime legislation that contributed to their undoing, particularly a ban on assault-style weapons that prompted the National Rifle Association to work against many incumbents.
Fast forward 16 years. Once again the Democrats are in trouble. If they don't lose the House, they may end up controlling it by only a narrow margin. This year, anticrime legislation is seemingly invisible. Besides what ends up in the appropriations law that keeps the federal government running, it's not clear that any significant legislation involving criminal justice will be enacted.
Why the change? A prime reason is that crime rates nationally are way below what they were in 1994. The totals still are high by U.S. historical standards but compared with 1994, things seem under control, even if some cities are reporting crime problems.
This change was cited at an international “community justice” conference last week in Dallas, where advocates of New York City's Midtown Community Court pointed out that business is booming in Times Square, which was viewed as almost too unsafe to visit in the early 1990s. (There were about 102,000 reported robberies in the Big Apple in 1993, when the midtown court was opened; last year, there were about 28,000.)
Beyond the numbers, the Democrats of 2010 who control the congressional agenda seem afraid to tackle any issue that will provoke dissent. Yes, they did pass a major health care bill but that caused such a political backlash that hardly anything with a whiff of controversy was seriously pursued later. Congress did pass a bill last month that encourages households to turn in dangerous prescription drugs, but that may be about as far as anyone wants to go on crime legislation in this election year. (Congress also gets credit for reducing the sentencing discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine, an issue that been around since a 1986 law enacted in the middle of a crack crisis.)
Granted that crime is mostly a state and local issue, what could Congress do? For one thing, the full House and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure from Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) that would create a commission to study criminal justice issues nationwide—the first such panel since the mid-1960s. It sounds innocuous enough but Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.) apparently believes that it would cost too much and might threaten state interests. A bill lacking unanimous consent is unlikely to survive in a short post-election lame duck session.
Last month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a reauthorization of the 2004 Justice for All Act that would help states with DNA evidence backlogs and set national standards on some key criminal-defense issues. The measure eventually may get wide support but it is being pushed far too late in the two-year congressional cycle to get serious consideration.
Back in the House, Crime Subcommittee chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) has been championing a Youth PROMISE act that would expand federal support of crime-prevention programs. That approach has never won wide agreement among Republicans and even some Democrats who would instead focus on increasing maximum penalties for gang crimes.
Those are just a few of many criminal justice issues that are on the long list of bills that will have to be reintroduced, or abandoned, when the new Congress takes office in January.
Even if Congress is relatively inactive, Washington still is showing some leadership on anticrime issues. The Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs last week issued a report touting 8,200 grants totaling $5.6 billion that it awarded in fiscal year 2009 on a wide range of issues from juvenile justice to crime victim aid to human trafficking.
With a federal budget deficit looming and even larger shortfalls, proportionally, in states and localities, Washington's leadership on anticrime issues may be limited, depending in part on how the midterm elections turn out.