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Promises, Promises

BRASS TACKS

By John D. Solomon

NOT REGISTERING for the draft, it seems, is a lot like jaywalking. When you dart across the street in the face of a red "Don't Walk" signal, you do not expect to be brought to trial. When you decide not to register in the face of long jail term and a large fine, you do. But in their enforcement of the registration law, the Selective Service and Justice Department have treated non-registrants like jaywalkers; even if you cross there is not much chance you are going to get caught.

The weak effort to prosecute non-registrants and the sheer lack of any coherent plan for doing so has been a lesson in bureaucratic mismanagement. But much worse has been the smokescreen of misleading actions the government has thrown up throughout the last year to mask this failure. Instead of being honest with the public and admitting that their efforts to prosecute non-registrants have been absolutely ineffective, officials have insisted at every point that their capability to enforce the law was greater than it is. The Selective Service and Justice Department have been bluffing with a weak hand, the kind of thing government agencies should not be doing with their citizens. Only lately have some officials pulled back from earlier boasts and publicly realized their inadequacies.

In the summer of 1982, Selective Service Director Thomas K. Turnage promised that hundreds of men who had not registered for the draft would be prosecuted that fall. One year later, after only 16 indictments, the tune has changed. "We have fallen behind our predictions." "Justice Department official John Russell said Tuesday.

Russell's statement is a positive realization that the Service and the Justice Department have not been able to fully carry out the disciplinary aspects of the registration law, proposed by Jimmy Carter in January 1980 after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In fact, the government has fallen miles short of Turnage's stated goal, largely because of a breakdown in coordination between the Selective Service--which gathers potential registrants--and the Justice Department--which is charged with prosecuting evaders. That disorganization by itself would not be very encouraging as an indicator of how federal agencies enforce federal laws. But the more serious fault lies in officials denials of the confusion and their misleading insistence that prosecutions were right on target.

Just what went wrong bureaucratically depends on whom you talk to Selective Service officials say they have sent 75,000 names of registrants to the Justice Department for prosecuting since July 1981, beginning with an original list of 5626. While they do not blame the Justice Department or local United States attorneys, Selective Service Assistant Director Wil Eabel said Tuesday. "I am a little surprised there have not been more indictments."

Justice Department officials, for their part, feel they do not have the manpower to deal with the enormous number of cases the Selective Service has dumped in their laps. The say that the Department is forced to spend precious manpower tracking down names of people who do not exist, are too old for the draft or have already registered. The process is a long one, beginning with warning letters from the Selective Service, more letters from the Justice Department, and a visit from the Federal Bureau of Investigation before any local U.S. attorney can bring criminal proceedings against a non-registrant. Officials also blame the incompatibility between the computers of the two agencies for delays in prosecutions.

REGARDLESS of who is at fault, the fact remains that in the year since Turnage made his public prediction, only 16 non-registrants have been indicted and eight convicted out of 371,000. That paltry number would be very puzzling to an observer who had followed the government's pronouncements and pictured the departments as they have been describing themselves.

The first incorrect impression that the government conveyed was that a bevy of indictments were just around the corner. In fact, they are still tricking in; the most recent indictment, in Minnesota last week, was the first in more than four months. Turnage was the first to make lavish predictions about the prosecution rate, but only slightly less optimistic claims were being made more recently by other officials that massive indictments were on the way. Everyone involved in the implementation of registration for the draft knew that no such thing was going to happen. Such bald exaggerations may have been intended to scare non-registrants into going to the post office, but they undoubtedly also served to cover for the bureaucratic snarl between the agencies.

The second misimpression the government fostered was that prosecutions would be made randomly among all non-registrants. In fact, until this past summer, only persons who had made their non-registrant status known were being prosecuted. All 16 indicted men have been found under this "passive" search; the Justice Department "active" search instituted in August has yet to produce an indictment. The disorganization of the process made it nearly impossible to prosecute unless they advertised their status.

The government's final excuse for stalling on indictments was the desire to spread them around the country equally. But regional planning has no real relevance until the Justice Department begins producing names for U.S. attorneys to prosecute. For the moment, many attorneys are not only short on names but also reluctant to run the political risk of being one of 17 attorneys to bring the young men into court. More names from agencies and more public indictments would have made the prosecutors more secure politically, though department officials deny any connection.

While registration foes might cheer at the sorry record of action by both the Selective Service and the Justice Department, the issue goes beyond whether their mission is good or bad. The actions of the two agencies in continuing to mislead the public as to their capabilities should disappoint registration advocates and opponents alike.

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