Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at a White House Briefing on Proposed Criminal Justice Reform Legislation

October 16, 1987

Well, thank you all for coming by, and thank you for a warm welcome. I'm delighted to see you and I want to make a few remarks this afternoon on the matter of the law and our courts—an area I know is of some interest to you, and as you may have noticed, has been in the news lately. Sometimes people ask me whether I ever weary of the controversy that seems to surround so much of public life and especially this job. Well, the truth is that more than anything else, the Presidency becomes a source of satisfaction if you can look back and see a far distance travelled.

In fact, I can recall very well those first few months in office when we were faced with the worst economic mess since the Great Depression. And on the international scene, in some ways, things were even worse. Anyway, what I remember most is discovering that after spending a whole campaign talking about the serious problems we faced, I got into office and found out I'd been guilty of understatement. I felt a little like the Titanic passenger, John Jacob Astor, who it is reported said when the ship hit the iceberg, "Listen, I asked for ice but this is ridiculous." [Laughter] But things did turn around; we moved from a dead-in-the-water economy to a dynamic, growth-oriented, job-creating expansion that will become the longest in peacetime history. Internationally, we moved from danger and humiliation to new status; not only as a nation of power, but a nation with a sense of right and purpose strong enough to set the tides running again in the cause of freedom and democracy.

And yet, for all the critical economic and international problems we faced, we should not forget that back in the early days, we faced another crisis that was just as grave, one that threatened the very stability and survival of our society. And that crisis was: the crisis of crime. Now, I won't list the statistics and recite the horror stories. I think we can all remember the crime rates that steadily escalated, the fear and terror in our streets and neighborhoods, and the undermining of public faith in our legal system and our democratic institution.

In my first year in office, I mentioned all of this in a speech to our nation's police chiefs, and I pledged to them and to the Nation immediate action. We organized a commission on violent crime that came up with serious reforms that were widely enacted. We added prosecutors and Federal agents and moved forward with a massive crackdown on drug trafficking. We singled out the syndicate for extinction and began a war of abolition against the mob. And though it did take 3 years and though we were forced to remove some important provisions, we did finally get the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984; which was tough, new crime legislation, passed by the Congress including new drug trafficking laws and tougher sentencing procedures. And finally, we appointed judges who understood that the first duty of any civilized society is to protect its honest citizens from those who prey on their innocent fellow citizens.

I want you to know we've had results. The number of convictions and average sentences have increased dramatically. In the organized crime area alone, convictions are more than five times what they were. I'm proud to tell you, too, that this administration's judges have been shown to be statistically far sterner with criminals than their predecessors. All of this has added up. Only last week, the Department of Justice released a study showing crime was down now for the fifth year in a row and was now at its lowest point in 14 years.

Now, some have tried to say that all this progress was the result of demographics, we simply had less people in the crime-prone categories. Well, the truth is that the drop in crime cannot be explained by demographics. Coincidence isn't necessarily cause. Crime has sometimes risen with population growth and sometimes not. There's nothing historically inevitable about it.

Between 1977 and 1981, for example, the numbers in the crime-prone age group dropped slightly, but serious crime went up 22 percent. So, let me just point out something that I think is too often overlooked here. The rise in crime was not an unavoidable accident; it didn't just happen. It was the result of a liberal social philosophy that endorsed and supported leniency in the courtroom, a social philosophy that said that society, not the criminal, was to blame for crime. And this leniency in the courtroom itself was the result of another liberal phenomenon: judicial activism; judges who thought it was their right to make the law, not just interpret it; judges who fashioned new rules that were a catastrophe for law-abiding citizens, new rules that made it harder to convict even the most hardened and obviously guilty criminals. I've just recently heard of a case that took place that illustrates this type of thing. A man convicted for a heinous crime of violence and then released out in the streets because he was not brought before the commissioner within 24 hours of arrest. No, he was brought before him in 24 hours and 12 minutes. So he's out on the street.

The reason crime has declined is obvious to you and me. As I suggested back in 1981, the American people were fed up. They were tired of judicial systems that were tough on law enforcement officials, but let criminals off easy. They insisted that certain important truths be reasserted, certain-well, that there's a right and wrong; that individuals are responsible for their actions; and that society has a right to protect itself and the potential victims of crime from those who prey on the innocent.

And now, thanks to the American people, and especially to those of you at the State and local level here in this room, we have managed to reject that ugly past. We're making America safe and secure again for our children. But much remains to be done. The task before us in the criminal justice area is the same as the task before us economically and internationally. We have dealt with the crisis, but we must now institutionalize the progress that we've made. We must make our recent gains permanent.

Let me speak then to the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 1987 and the three reforms that I am announcing today, these reforms that we were forced to remove from our earlier crime package but which we will pursue now with renewed vigor. The United States is the only nation in the world with such an expansive exclusionary rule. A rule that rests on the proposition that a law enforcement error, no matter how technical, can be used to justify throwing an entire case out of court, no matter how guilty the defendant or how heinous the crime. The plain consequence of treating the wrongs equally is a grievous miscarriage of justice. The criminal goes free, the officer is uncorrected, and the only ones who really suffer are the people in the community. Just to show how absurd this can become, let me tell you about another case, one that I have mentioned before on similar occasions. This was—happened when I was Governor in California.

Two drug enforcement officers in California got a warrant on the basis of evidence that indicated that a married couple in a certain home were in the business of selling heroin. Well, they served their warrant, they went in, they could not find the heroin. And as they were leaving the house, one of them turned back. There was a baby in the crib, and he took the baby's diaper off. And there was the heroin. Case thrown out of court because the baby hadn't given its permission to be searched.

Now, the first reform I want to talk about today concerns that exclusionary rule. As you know, the Supreme Court recently recognized that it makes no sense to apply the exclusionary rule when a police officer believes in reasonably good faith that he is acting under a valid warrant, even if the warrant is defective for some reason. My proposal would codify the existing reasonable good faith exception and expand it to warrantless searches and seizures. It would also limit use of statutes to exclude evidence. Those are reasonable and responsible changes, and I urge the Congress to act quickly. It'll make a difference to those of you on the front line.

Now secondly, you all know better than anyone that judicial activists have expanded the Federal habeas corpus doctrine to such an extent that it interferes with our primary defense against crime: the State criminal justice systems. Originally meant to safeguard our liberties by preventing the government from holding a person in custody without pressing criminal charges, the habeas corpus doctrine is now misused by Federal courts to second guess valid State criminal convictions, My proposal would reform this doctrine and prevent it from being used as another tool to let guilty criminals off the hook.

And finally, I think you all know how strongly the American people feel about restoration of the death penalty. Currently, there are no adequate Federal procedures on the death penalty, and so it cannot be used in cases where Federal statutes provide for capital punishment. My proposal would establish such adequate procedures so that the death penalty provisions already on the books can be utilized in such cases as espionage, treason, and aggravated murder.

Now as I said, all of these reforms were included in our original crime bill. But, we were forced to remove them to get any action at all out of a Congress that locked our crime bill up in committee. While each of these reforms have been passed individually by the Senate in recent years, the House Judiciary Committee has refused at every turn to present them to the floor of the House for a vote. And that's why I urge a full and open debate in the Congress on these critical reforms. I urge members on both sides of these questions to come forward, as they're doing now on my nomination of Judge Bork, to identify their positions and inform the American people on the kind of representation they're receiving on the crime issue.

This issue concerns these reforms as it concerns the Bork nomination. Because what we really see here is two conflicting visions of America. Those who oppose my nomination of Judge Bork want activist judges who'll promote their policy objective, or agenda—a policy agenda whose major objectives would not win approval in the democratic process of a majority vote, a policy agenda that includes leniency in the courtroom and the fashioning of new rules to protect criminals. On the other hand, we have the people who are fed up with crime, who support judicial restraint, who understand society's right to protect itself from the criminal element—people especially like yourselves and the hundreds of thousands from other law enforcement groups who have supported Judge Bork for the Supreme Court.

Today I challenge all those who would oppose these important reforms and all those who oppose the nomination of Judge Bork to reflect carefully and well on what the American people want. I remind them again: The American people do not want judges picked for special interests. They do not want to return to leniency in the courtroom and unsafe streets. They want judges and laws that reflect common sense attitudes about crime. The simple truth is: crime is far too common. Lenient laws and lenient judges have been greatly to blame for it. It's time to reinstate the death penalty, reform the exclusionary rule and modify habeas corpus. And it's time to put on the bench men like Judge Robert Bork.

If you think that I am a little steamed up about this, I am. I remember in my 8 years in California as Governor and the inability to get some crime reforms. And then in one of the every-two-year elections there was a certain change in the balance of the Legislature, and in a matter of months, 41 anticrime bills were passed out of committee and passed. None of them were new. All 41 had been buried in the same committee of the Legislature and were brought out when there was just a slight change in the balance of that Legislature. Well now, I think I'd better quit talking and get to writing and sign the transmittal messages.

Note: The President spoke at 2 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a White House Briefing on Proposed Criminal Justice Reform Legislation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives