Shooting Up States’ Rights

One of the hottest movies this summer is Wyatt Earp, about the legendary federal marshal who rides into town, both barrels blazing, to rescue settlers from outlaw gangs. When it comes to fighting crime, it seems our congressmen have assigned themselves the role of Wyatt Earp. They plan to ride into our towns and take aim at our state and local laws. When the shooting stops, thousands of state crimes would be in the hands of the Feds. That's just one of the effects of the omnibus crime bill, passed by both houses of Congress last winter. The bill is now in conference committee while the two bodies wrangle over different versions. But if you ask me, this is one bill that should be headed off at the pass. It represents a dangerous increase in the power of the federal government. For example, the D'Amato amendment would transform every crime committed with a handgun from a state offense into a federal offense. Since 650,000 handgun crimes are committed each year, that means potentially hundreds of thousands of crimes will be taken out of state courts and turned over to the Feds. This represents a vast expansion of federal jurisdiction. And one that we can ill afford. Federal courts simply aren't equipped to deal with the huge new caseload this bill would create. And every time we federalize anything, we jack up the cost, the bureaucracy, and the inefficiency. The bill also calls for the creation of regional prisons for violent criminals. That may sound good on the surface—until you realize that the states won't be permitted to use these prisons unless they adapt their own sentencing laws to federal guidelines. In other words, states won't be allowed to make their own judgments about what constitutes just punishment. They won't have the option of taking mitigating factors into account, such as a criminal's remorse or his likelihood of repeating the crime. Instead, the Feds will hog-tie state laws in favor of imposing their own laws, handed down from Capitol Hill. Opinion polls show that crime is the number one concern in America today. Like the settlers of the old West, Americans want to rid their towns of outlaw gangs. But the imposition of federal standards will paralyze the legal system and do nothing to stop runaway crime. Most crime is a state and local responsibility. Grabbing power away from the states violates the fundamental principle of federalism. If the Feds really want to get tough on crime, they ought to empower local officials to do their job better—not try to take over their job. They ought to help them upgrade detection, apprehension, prosecution, and incarceration of criminals. But they should definitely not micromanage local crime-fighting efforts. Frankly, I'd be delighted if the omnibus crime bill simply died a peaceful death in committee. But we can't count on that happening. We need to tell our congressmen to drop the Wyatt Earp act and vote against the federalization of state and local crime.   This is one bill that ought to be run out of town for good.


Chuck Colson


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