Anti-crime bill picks up cosponsors, momentum

Legislation aimed at curtailing crime through preventive measures is attracting broad bipartisan support in the House.

If enacted, the Youth Promise Act would mark a historic change in the direction in juvenile justice and gang-related crime policy. It also would be the first such bill of its kind to pass in a decade.

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The bill, introduced by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Mike Castle (R-Del.) in February, has 204 co-sponsors, including 16 Republicans. Ninety lawmakers have backed the bill since June 1.

The bill seeks to fund evidence- and research-based crime-prevention programs and would allocate $1.2 billion over five years to bring together law enforcement, schools and community organizations in an effort to prevent gang crime. The focus on prevention rather than the traditional “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” approach would represent a dramatic shift in dealing with crime and the costs associated with it.

Companion legislation introduced in the upper chamber by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has eight co-sponsors.

In the House, the Republican supporters include Reps. Steven LaTourette (Ohio), Chris Smith (N.J.), Brian Bilbray (Calif.), Tim Murphy, (Pa.), Sue Myrick (N.C.), Fred Upton (Mich.), Mark Souder (Ind.), Todd Platts (Pa.), Randy Forbes (Va.) and Walter Jones (N.C.).

The Scott-Castle bill’s focus on prevention rather than punishment is driving much of the GOP backing, with Republicans noting the potential for cost savings by avoiding some costly incarcerations.

The Congressional Budget Office has not yet scored the legislation.

“We pay $20,000 to keep someone in prison but we don’t want to spend a little bit on the front end,” Myrick said, referencing a local community-based program in Charlotte, N.C., that lines up jobs for people exiting prison and/or parole programs. “This is spending some money … to try and stop crime before it begins.”

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who is a co-sponsor, said, “I think if you look at the investments we are making on the correctional side of things I get concerned with the number of folks going into correctional institutions. If we are going to stem the flow we’d better look at programs up front.”

A rapid growth in the number of people in prison or on parole has propelled the population of the U.S. corrections system to more than 7.3 million people — or 1 in every 31 adults, according to a report by the Pew Center released in March. Since 1982, the cost of incarceration has risen from $9 billion a year to over $65 billion annually.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. A 2008 study showed that for the first time in the nation’s history, more than 1 in 100 American adults is behind bars. Though totals vary greatly from state to state, it can cost as much as $200,000 per year to incarcerate a single individual.

Scott, who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, said, “You have a rare situation where the right thing to do and the fiscally responsible thing to do are the same thing. There is a recognition that crime policy that has been demonstrated to be counterproductive makes no sense.

“All of the research points to this model as an effective way of reducing crime in a cost-effective way,” Scott added.

Scott has been working on crime issues since he was in the Virginia state Senate in the mid-’80s. He has been seen spending much of his time in between floor votes lobbying his colleagues to back his bill.

Murphy said, “The expense of incarceration and the expense of just dumping individuals in classrooms of underachievers is not working. It’s going to require a little more thoughtfulness. Certainly Rep. Scott’s goal is a more thoughtful approach.”

“I’m sick and tired of trying to take care of the world. I want to see America rebuild itself and spend the money here for our kids. If I can help a child before that child gets in trouble I think I have a spiritual duty by God to do it,” Jones added.

Five of the fourteen Republicans supporting H.R. 1064 signed the 1994 Contract With America, which contained a tough crime provision called the Take Back Our Streets Act.

Scott says the approach touted in the 1990s has clearly failed and he claims his bill would remedy the problem.

“This is how you take back the streets. ... If you want to waste money and be counterproductive that’s the status quo,” Scott said.

Rival legislation sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have not attracted the support that Scott’s has. Feinstein attempted to “hotline” her bill last week through the Senate, but three members objected.

Critics of the Scott bill believe the punitive aspects should be included along with prevention in any bill offered.

Schiff said, “I think taking a comprehensive approach tends to get the best results. I certainly support stronger efforts in prevention — they are a part of both bills I’ve introduced.”

Regardless of what bill — or combination of bills — moves in the 111th Congress, experts say the issue of crime has become less partisan.

“There is a new atmosphere of bipartisan collaboration on criminal justice reform. People on both sides of the aisle have shown an interest in beginning to work together to find principled, non-partisan solutions,” said Heritage Foundation Senior Legal Research Fellow Brian Walsh.

The Scott legislation is supported by over 200 national and state juvenile justice, education and religious organizations and has been endorsed by the cities of Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Santa Fe, Philadelphia, and Newport News, among others. The U.S. Conference of Mayors endorsed the legislation last week.

Rep. Scott’s crime subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on the bill for July 15.

 This article was updated on June 24 at 12:28 p.m.