A Threat To Liberty


SOMETIME NEXT MONTH the Senate will try for the fourth time in seven years to revamp the federal laws on crime, and as they have in the past, civil liberties activists will again oppose the Criminal Justice Reform Act, now called S. 1630. Last week at Harvard, 200 students from a variety of campus political groups demonstrated against the bill, which if enacted in its current form would preserve some of the worst features of the existing criminal code while adding new provisions designed to restrict individual liberties. Fourteen of the University's most respected professors, including Stephen J. Gould, Jonathan Beckwith, and Vern Countryman have formally lobbied the Senate to defeat the legislation.

Certainly it is not a streamlining of redundant, outdated criminal codes that we or others would oppose. Existing federal statues contain 70 separate provisions for theft, 79 different definitions of a criminal state of mind. Other federal crimes include interfering with the flight of Government carrier pigeons and seducing a passenger on a steamship.

But like its predecessors, dating back to the Nixon-supported Senate Bill One, S. 1630 would do much more than tidy up the law books.

Under the proposed revisions, existing laws directed specifically against anti-draft and anti-war protesters would be strengthened, a new provision would target anti-nuclear power activists for special investigation and prosecution. The bill would give judges broad new powers to deny bail and to imprison people accused of any crime while they await trail. This so-called preventive detention seems to conflict with the Eighth Amendment and certainly undermines the basic assumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The legislation would also effectively nullify the "exclusionary rule" that has invalidated the use of evidence obtained illegally.

In other areas, S. 1630 would create vaguely defined new crimes of "criminal attempt," "criminal conspiracy," and "criminal solicitation," and in particular would threaten the freedom of the press. Harsher punishments would be in store for reporters who refuse to identify certain news sources in court. Public officials who leak accounts of Government corruption or other sensitive information, as well as the journalists who publish the accounts, could be charged with "revealing private information submitted for a Government purpose."


S. 1630 received approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee with a powerful array of backers, among them the Reagan Administration, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S-C.) and, amazingly, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.). A spokesman for the liberal Democratic leader said this week that descriptions of the bill by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union had been exaggerated and that the Senator believes it would accomplish the crucial goal of more efficient federal crime statutes. He did not explain that Kennedy had sponsored earlier incarnations of S. 1630 as a good-will gesture to conservatives when he was jockeying for power as Judiciary Committee chairman in the late 1970s, or that the Senator has maintained his support as a face-saving measure since then. Needless to say, other liberals have rejected Kennedy's position and promise to oppose S. 1630.

Regardless of this opposition, the measure has a good chance of passage in the Senate, and the real battle will probably take shape in the House, where several representatives have proposed progressive alternatives to S. 1630. Most notably, John Conyers Jr., (D-Mich.) has introduced a liberal omnibus reform bill, H.R. 4711, which would provide the needed streamlining without violating the Constitution in the name of law and order.

The Conyers bill has little chance of passage in either house, but it is expected to serve as a rallying point in the campaign to stop S. 1630. If that goal is achieved, the best we can hope for is a careful, step-by-step elimination of the contradictory, anachronistic aspects of the existing criminal code, because, at the moment, drastic action in this area will almost certainly have dangerous results.