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Administration Acts to Take Control of Crime Issue : Legislation: Officials seek to control debate over measure pending in House. Republicans call the proposals 'tough talk, weak substance.'


WASHINGTON — Hoping to build public enthusiasm for a controversial anti-crime bill in the House, the Clinton Administration Tuesday claimed some advances in its war on crime but said that further progress depends on passage of the legislation.

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, flanked by other top policy-makers, presided at a White House briefing apparently designed to take firm control of the crime issue and to repel demands from Republicans in Congress for tougher laws targeting hard-core criminals.

The House was unable to act on the crime-fighting bill before its two-week Easter break began last Friday because of a partisan dispute over the ground rules for debate. Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said the bill will be the first item of business when lawmakers return April 12.

Among the controversial issues in the legislation are provisions that would expand the federal death penalty, require life sentences for three-time violent offenders and allow 13- and 14-year-olds to be tried as adults for certain serious crimes. Floor battles seem assured over proposals to limit appeals of Death Row inmates and to allocate $2 billion in grants to crime-prone communities.

House Republican leaders have called the Administration-backed bill a combination of "tough talk, weak substance and misdirected spending." The Senate passed its version of the crime bill last November and, after the House completes its work, a Senate-House conference committee will work out differences between the two measures.

Reno said cooperation between federal and local law enforcement officials is beginning to show results. But she emphasized that more federal money is needed to help states build new prisons and carry out crime prevention programs.

"I'm not here to be a Pollyanna or pretend that the crime problem is being solved," she said. "We've made some headway but we've got more to do. . . . I think the American people want us all to work together in a nonpartisan, thoughtful way to get this crime bill passed."

She said that a provision in the Senate-passed crime bill that would help cities put 100,000 more police officers on the street over the next five years would produce a 40% increase in the national force of 250,000 law enforcement officers.

A smaller-scale Justice Department program already under way has allocated $75 million to more than 100 cities and towns to pay for more than 1,000 new police officers, Reno said.

"Those that got the first grants tell me they are making a difference," she added. "Everywhere I travel, local officials say they need this help."

Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development, said a new "Operation Safe Home," which focuses federal enforcement efforts on crime in public housing projects, has resulted in 24 arrests, 14 indictments and the recovery of 25 weapons and $300,000 in drugs and cash during its first month.

His department also will make available $232 million in grants to local public housing managers for programs designed to fight drug trafficking and drug-related crime in federal projects, Cisneros said, noting that $500 million has been provided since the program's inception in 1989.

"I pledge to join the attorney general in her efforts . . . over the next several weeks to do everything we can to pass the crime bill," Cisneros said. "That means going around the country, talking to citizens who in turn can express their opinions to their legislators, working as part of the White House team."

Ronald K. Noble, assistant Treasury secretary for law enforcement, reported positive results from the first month under the new federal law that requires a five-day waiting period for purchases of handguns while police do background checks. In Houston alone, he said, 199 persons have been stopped from buying guns since the law took effect. Forty-eight were denied guns in Dallas.

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