The liberal war on crime.

The liberal war on crime.

The liberal war on crime.

Politics and policy.
July 19 2002 5:33 PM

Brokers in Stocks

Liberals call for blood in the new war on crime.

Every few years, the rate of muggings or murders goes up, and politicians launch a war on crime. They vow to lock up all the hoodlums and throw away the key. Usually the war is led by conservatives who double jail sentences and sneer at liberals for being soft-headed. This year, the war is different. The criminals are accountants and corporate executives, and the war is being led by liberals.

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But the liberals, it turns out, like to run their war the same way: lots of jail time, lots of congressional meddling in prosecutions, lots of sneering at the other party for being squishy. Only one thing stands in the liberals' way: They used to make what they said was a principled case against wars on crime. What are the liberals doing now about that case? They're running it over like a little old lady.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Take the example of John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. In 1995, the last time Congress launched a law-and-order jihad, Conyers led the resistance. Republicans wanted to loosen the exclusionary rule so that prosecutors could sometimes use evidence seized without a proper warrant. Conyers accused them of breaching the presumption of innocence and gutting the constitutional protection against illegal searches.

Republicans wanted to build more jails and fill them with scoundrels. Conyers replied that punishments short of jail were more appropriate for "nonviolent" offenders. He questioned whether first-time drug offenders deserved five-year sentences. He dismissed prison as "a breeding ground for more serious crime." He argued that public funds would be better spent on programs such as midnight basketball. "We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of crime," he said. He dismissed the GOP's theory that harsh penalties would deter lawbreakers. "It is ridiculous to think that potentially higher sentences will deter attempts to escape from prison," he scoffed. "Those individuals who attempt such escapes are not thinking about the penalty for getting caught, because they do not think they will get caught."

Conyers feared that relaxing restrictions on police and prosecutors would empower them to bully or railroad innocent people. He faulted Congress for supplanting local judgments about sentences and trial procedures with "paternalistic dictates from Washington." Judges and prosecutors should be free to make decisions based on "the evidence in the court," said Conyers. Congress shouldn't presume a single formula for all cases, nor should it rush to legislate without care. Politicians mustn't "push the envelope" of civil liberties, he warned, just so "they would not be perceived to be soft on crime."

Those were Conyers' principles for dealing with blue-collar crime. White-collar crime is another matter. Three months ago, Conyers introduced the "Corporate and Criminal Fraud Accountability Act of 2002," trumpeting its beefed-up sentences of five and 10 years for various offenses. The best way to deter securities fraud, he asserted, was to throw lawbreakers in the slammer. "Tougher penalties would make it far less likely that future Enron's would occur," said Conyers.

Last week, when President Bush joined the war on corporate miscreants, Conyers blasted him for failing "to impose sufficient criminal penalties to discourage future acts of fraud and abuse." It wasn't enough, said Conyers, to let criminals be "slapped on the wrist and sent back out into the corporate world to once again harm hardworking Americans." This week, House Republicans copied much of Conyers' bill and multiplied some of his prescribed jail terms. Conyers isn't satisfied. He wants further "sentencing enhancements."

In this war, Conyers says Congress should stiffen criminal laws to stop courts from interpreting them in "limited ways." He accuses the U.S. Justice Department of not bringing enough prosecutions, offers legislation instructing the U.S. Sentencing Commission to draw up harsher penalties, and prescribes federal rules to fix what he views as loopholes in state laws. He proposes "more general and less technical" criminal statutes so that "investigators and prosecutors" can have a freer hand to punish whatever villainy they find. And he insists on civil as well as criminal prosecutions of accused crooks, since civil convictions require only "a preponderance of evidence."

Republicans refuse to be outbid. They've doubled the maximum sentence in Conyers' bill from 10 to 20 years and are accusing Democrats of settling for "weaker" sanctions. Conyers, meanwhile, is accusing the GOP of talking tough while shielding CEOs. Next they'll be handing out stones, and liberals will be moving through the crowd, selling popcorn.