Maxwell School, Syracuse University

The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs


PAI 786 - Urban Policy
Professor Yinger



Case: The 1994 Crime Bill(1)

Following the example set by the Senate five months earlier, the House of Representatives passed a crime bill on April 21, 1994.  The two bills will now be brought before a House-Senate Conference Committee, which will determine the final form of the bill to be voted on(and surely passed) by both houses of Congress.

The House and Senate Versions

Leaders of the Senate and the House already have agreed that the final bill will have a price tag of $22.3 billion, including the Senate's $9 billion provision to hire and train 100,000 neighborhood police officers. This price tag cannot be altered by the Conference Committee. How to spend the rest, that is, whether to punish existing crooks or to prevent youngsters from becoming new ones, will be the main issue in negotiations for the final bill, said the chief sponsor of the House measure, Representative Charles E. Schumer of Brooklyn.

The Senate bill calls for spending most of the money on new policemen and on prison construction, whereas the House bill includes more funds for drug programs, family counseling, inner-city sports leagues, neighborhood watch programs, and other crime-prevention programs. Mr. Schumer pledged to go "toe to toe" with the Senate Republicans, who have pledged to strip money for crime prevention from the bill. "The American people want tough punishment, but they also want prevention. Ten years down the road, they don't want to be able to say we tripled the number of jail cells with nothing to show for it." The House version, Mr. Schumer continued, "listened to what was going on out in the streets."

Another controversial provision of the House bill, which was sponsored by Representative John Conyers of Michigan and other members of the House's Black Caucus, is to allow people on death row to appeal using statistical evidence that the death penalty is racially biased. This provision would effectively apply to executions the same sorts of numerical yardsticks long used to support charges of racial bias in housing, hiring, credit and other civil rights arenas. Moreover, it would undo existing law which, since a 1987 Supreme Court ruling, has made such statistics all but irrelevant in death-row appeals. This ruling held that death-row inmates claiming bias in their sentencing must prove that they were damaged by specific instances of bias, rather than by a broad pattern. According to the House bill, if a death-row inmate can show a statistically significant pattern of bias in similar cases tried in the same courts, then the burden of proving that the inmate's sentence was not influenced by race would fall on the prosecutors. For example, a black defendant might show that, in the courts in his state, a disproportionate number of those sentenced to death who had criminal records were black, or that the state condemned few or no whites who killed blacks but an overwhelming number of blacks who killed whites.(2)  The state might successfully rebut such evidence, say in a case involving a slain policeman, by showing a consistent pattern of seeking the death penalty for cop-killers, regardless of race.

The distinction between these two approaches could be quite dramatic in practice. Many studies show that juries mete out the death penalty to black and other minority defendants in a disproportionate number of murder cases, particularly when the victims are white and especially in states and counties that have a history of racial problems. Thus, Representative Bill McCollum of Florida, a strong proponent of the death penalty, argued angrily that this provision in the House bill "would abolish the death penalty in America." Supporters of the provision responded by asking "What more damning statement could be made of capital punishment than that it could not survive if applied with racial justice?"

A more detailed description of the Senate and House Crime Bills is presented in the attached table.


The Decisions

As a newly elected member of the Senate (or House--take your pick), you have been selected to be on the House-Senate Conference Committee. You are determined to fight for a bill that selects what you believe to be the best features of the Senate and House versions, without considering issues of political feasibility beyond the Conference Committee itself. In other words, you plan to strive for the best possible compromise in the Conference Committee, but not to worry about what will happen when the bill reaches the Senate or House floor. You recognize, however, that the final bill cannot contain any provision that is not included in either the Senate or the House bill and that the final bill must include any provision already adopted by both houses. The dollar amount for any provision must equal the amount in the Senate or House bill--or any amount in between.

You must present your position at the first Conference Committee meeting. This meeting must produce a final bill with a decision on every contested provision.


Major Provisions of the Senate and House Crime Bills

1. Police

Senate: Authorizes $9 billion to put 100,000 new police officers on the nation's streets over the next five years.

House: Grants $3.45 billion for the hiring and training of 50,000 police officers over the next six years. Includes $500 million for a police corps, modeled after the Reserve Officer's Training Corps, to recruit and train young officers.

2. Guns

Senate: Bans the manufacture, sale and possession of 19 semiautomatic assault weapons as well as clips that feed more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Specifically exempts more than 650 hunting weapons, in addition to assault weapons that have already been manufactured. Also prohibits the sale or transfer of guns to minors, and makes it a federal offense to commit a crime with a firearm carried across state lines.

House: No provision on assault weapons. Bans all sales or transfers of guns to minors.

3. Prisons

Senate: Authorizes $3 billion for the construction of regional high-security prisons over five years. To take advantage of the program, states would have to adopt "truth in sentencing" guidelines, ensuring that violent felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Authorizes another $3 billion for boot camps for young offenders and other "innovative" correctional programs.

House: Authorizes $13.5 billion over the next five years for construction of state prisons and $600 million over three years for states to develop alternative correctional programs. Includes "truth in sentencing guidelines" that are more flexible than those in the Senate version, and a provision to reserve more of the prison construction funds for states that jail violent offenders more frequently and for a long time.

4. Three-Time Felons

Senate: Mandatory life sentences for people convicted of a third violent felony. The first two crimes must be violent federal or state felonies. The third one must be a federal crime that involves either a violent offense or a major drug offense, such as selling 50 grams of crack or trafficking in 1,000 kilos of marijuana. For the first two strikes, a violent offense includes one punishable by a maximum term of at least five years.

House: Mandatory life sentences for people convicted of a third serious violent felony. The first two crimes must be state or federal violent crimes or a major drug offense, defined somewhat more stringently (that is, with a higher maximum term) than the Senate version. The third has to be a violent federal offense or a major drug offense, with the same definitions as used by the Senate.

5. Capital Punishment

Senate: Expands the federal death penalty to cover 39 new offenses, including torture, murders of kidnapped children, and killings on ocean oil platforms.

House: Expands the federal death penalty to cover essentially the same offenses as the Senate version. Contains a provision that lets future death-row prisoners use statistical evidence of racial bias in past executions to prove in court that their own death sentences were motivated by discrimination.

6. Crime Prevention

Senate: Authorizes $3.759 billion for crime prevention programs, such as grants to combat violence against women, and $4.26 billion for rehabilitation programs, including drug treatment in prison.

House: Authorizes $6.7 billion for direct aid to community programs intended to prevent crime, including $50 million for a nighttime sports program, $525 million for youth employment programs, and $20 million for so-called community youth academies. Also authorizes $2.45 billion for rehabilitation programs.

7. First-Time Offenders

Senate: Allows judges to drop mandatory penalties for first-time nonviolent drug offenders.

House: Exempts a slightly broader group of offenders from mandatory penalties than does the Senate version, but provides that such offenders must be sentenced to at least two years.


1.This case was written by John Yinger for the purposes of class discussion. It draws on Michael Wines, "House Votes to Allow Death-Row Appeals Using Race-Bias Data," The New York Times, April 21, 1994, p. A13; Michael Wines, "House Adopts Crime Legislation to Build Jails and Hire Officers," The New York Times, April 22, 1994, p. A1; Monica Borkowski, "Major Provisions of the Crime Bill," The New York Times, April 22, 1994, p. A18; and "For Racial Justice in Executions," Editorial, The New York Times, April 22, 1994, p. A26.

2.Since 1976, 230 people have been executed for murder in the United States. Only one of these people was a white person convicted of killing a black person.


Trustee Professor of Public Administration and Economics