In response to soaring crime rates, urban riots, and public demand for federal action in the late 1960s, Congress passed the Safe Streets Act, its largest anticrime package to date. Initially, President Johnson and liberal Democrats had proposed the bill to combat the social roots of crime. However, the final version focused almost entirely on increasing police effectiveness. Through large federal grants and stiffer laws, the legislation aimed to reduce crime in urban poverty areas inhabited mostly by the black underclass.
The federal government had no jurisdiction to control crime in the states, so as part of the bill, Congress authorized the creation of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) to add federal funding to local law enforcement. State law enforcement officials received block grants allowing them autonomy to spend grant monies under broad headings such as police planning, training, and crime prevention research.
While block grant funding was the mainstay of the legislation, Congress intended several provisions of the act to increase the legal efficiency of police. One aspect gave police fewer restrictions during identification line-ups and interrogation. A police officer was no longer required to read a suspect ‘‘Miranda warnings’’ before questioning. Furthermore, the bill limited federal judges’ power to review state court rulings on voluntary confessions and, when review was permitted, they had to follow narrow standards for determining ‘‘voluntariness.’’
Because judges now had more complicated rules for deciding ‘‘voluntariness,’’ critics argued that the new law challenged previous Supreme Court decisions in Miranda v. Arizona (1966) and United States v. Wade (1967). However, in 2000, after a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit admitted into evidence a confession obtained without Miranda warnings, the Supreme Court, in Dickerson v. United States, definitively decreed that Miranda warnings must be the standard of ‘‘voluntariness,’’ not the provisions in the Safe Streets Act.
Congress also intended the bill to reduce organized crime. The act permitted wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping with a warrant in a wider variety of criminal investigations. However, a warrant was not required for forty-eight hours if police suspected organized criminal activity or if national security was threatened.
Finally, regulations on the sale of handguns over interstate borders tightened up. Like many aspects of the bill, this one attempted to crack down on criminals since they would not as easily be able to appropriate weapons. Yet, a loophole allowing continued interstate traffic in rifles and shotguns undermined this provision.
In 1981, Congress cut funding for the Safe Streets Act. The nation had expended enormous amounts of tax dollars and had rolled back the rights of criminal suspects, yet no reduction in crime rates had occurred. In fact, crime rates climbed during the tenure of the act. In the end, analysts have suggested that the legislation failed for two main reasons. First, politicians and experts did not understand how actually to reduce crime, and second, the block grant mechanism turned out to be too clumsy.
GARRY D. WICKERD
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428 (2000); Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966); United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218 (1967)