WASHINGTON (Aug. 29)
Little-known provisions in the controversial $30 billion crime bill that passed Congress last week drew praise from some Jewish groups for cracking down on terrorism and hate crimes.
The praise came despite certain reservations expressed about other measures in the bill, including an expansion of the death penalty.
After a suspense-filled drama, the Senate joined the House in resurrecting the first major piece of anti-crime legislation to pass Congress in six years.
After fending off stiff challenges from conservative lawmakers and gun control opponents, the measure passed the Senate 61-39 on Aug. 25.
Providing billions of dollars in grants to hire new police officers and to build more prisons across the country, the bill also bans dozens of semi-automatic assault weapons.
Along with the assault weapons ban, two unpublicized sections of the bill were hailed by many in the Jewish community for their direct aim at terrorism and at hate crimes.
Culminating an effort to combat hate crimes at the federal level, the bill will, for the first time, allow federal courts to impose stiffer penalties for hate crimes.
Over two dozen states currently have laws allowing judges to impose stiffer sentences if a crime is motivated by prejudice, but the federal government had not tackled the issue of stiffer sentencing until last week.
Depending on the nature of the offense, the provision known as the Hate Crime Sentencing Enhancement Act, will increase the average penalty for a crime by one-third over what would be meted out if it was not motivated by prejudice.
NEW PENALTIES FOR ASSISTING TERRORISTS
In contrast to crimes committed at the local level, such as desecration of a synagogue or a cross-burning, federal hate crimes involve crimes such as kidnapping and extortion motivated by race, religion, gender or disability.
Hate crimes committed on federal property such as national parks or Indian reservations also constitute federal offenses.
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia currently have some type of hate-crime law on the books, although not all the states include stiffer sentencing.
“Increasing penalties for bias crimes at the federal level sends an important message to both victims and would-be perpetrators that our society regards such crimes as reprehensible,” David Strassler and Abraham Foxman, national chairman and national director, respectively, of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement praising the crime bill’s success.
Another provision in the bill which drew widespread praise in the Jewish community establishes new categories of federal crimes for assisting terrorists and also bans contributions to terrorist organizations.
Leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations hailed the measure regarding terrorism.
The provisions are “relevant to the concerns of the Jewish community and all Americans,” said the umbrella organization’s chairman, Lester Pollack, and executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, in a statement.
The measure also makes it a crime to give money or weapons to terrorist groups.
Although proponents on Capitol Hill believe the ban will be difficult to enforce because it is difficult to monitor donations, they say they hope the measure will make people think twice before giving money to terrorist groups.
The terrorism sections of the bill were pushed by U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has tried in vain to pass tough anti-terrorism legislation for at least the past four years, according to an aide.
As chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice, which includes jurisdiction over terrorism, Schumer has long advocated the death penalty for terrorist acts that kill American citizens, another provision which was included in the crime bill passed last week.
STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS INCREASED
The bill also increases sentences for any felony involving international terrorism and imposes stiffer penalties for passport and visa fraud.
The measure also extends the statute of limitations for terrorism and other related crimes from five to eight years.
Lobbyists for Irish American groups fought the anti-terrorism language, fearing that the bill would prevent donations to the Irish Republican Army’s fund-raising arm, according to Capitol Hill aides familiar with the issue. However, both the terrorism and the hate crimes language drew little opposition.
Schumer praised the overall legislation as a beginning to combatting crime and terror.
“To be effective, we need to develop an orchestrated plan that will enable us to keep sustained pressure against terrorism at all times,” he said.
Many Jewish groups had considered opposing the crime bill because it establishes over 50 new crimes punishable by the death penalty.
Some, however, ultimately weighed in with support for the legislation because of the assault-weapons ban and funding for crime prevention.
“We have always viewed the crime bill as a mixed bag,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress. “As passed, the bill includes a lot of programs we consider important, but we’re disappointed by the expansion of the death penalty.”
President Clinton is expected to sign the bill into law at a White House ceremony after returning from a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.