America throws away the key: Obsessed US citizens want criminals off the streets at any cost, says Rupert Cornwell

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AMID all the moralising, chest- thumping and self-congratulation surrounding the great Crime Bill of 1994 that is about to be finalised by the US Congress, the case of 29-year-old Paul Rivers has gone virtually unnoticed. Rivers is a habitual criminal, one of those small-time burglars who invariably seem to get caught. Last week he was tried and convicted for grabbing dollars 337 from an espresso stand in Seattle.

No one was hurt in the incident. But it was Rivers's third conviction for second-degree assault or robbery since 1987, and last year Washington state passed a new law to deal with such menaces to society. Instead of the four-year term he might reasonably have expected, Rivers faces life in prison, without possibility of parole.

Baseball has given more metaphors to the American language than any sport: from pinch-hitters and strike- outs to those sudden dangers coming 'out of deep left field' which were the bane of George Bush's presidential existence. These days, though, none matches for popularity 'three strikes and you're out'. Technically it should be termed 'three strikes and you're in', but no matter. To Washington state belongs the distinction of having pioneered the measure. Today, the basic and eternal verity of baseball is fast becoming the preferred scourge of the criminal classes from coast to coast - part of an irresistible public clamour that criminals be put behind bars, for as long as possible, preferably for ever.

With the economy recovering, and the Soviet threat consigned to history's dustbin, every opinion poll shows crime to be the biggest worry of ordinary Americans. No matter that serious offences (except murder) actually declined slightly last year: saturation television coverage and several especially lurid cases have convinced the country that violence is out of control. But whereas the spotlight is on Congress, the reality is Paul Rivers.

The reconciled Crime Bill soon to be cobbled together from the slightly differing versions passed by the Senate and House of Representatives is hailed as the most ambitious measure ever. It will cost more than dollars 20bn, mostly to build prisons and put between 50,000 and 100,000 extra police on the streets. But the headlines have gone to the inevitable inclusion of the three-strike provision - heartily supported by President Clinton - and the extension of the death penalty to no fewer than 60 offences. All of which is splendid for the 435 Congressmen and 26 Senators up for re-election this autumn: the merest hint of being soft on crime is a political death sentence of its own.

It cannot be stressed enough that the US is the exact opposite of centralised Britain or France. Sweeping powers are vested in state and local governments. Laws passed by Congress are federal laws, to be applied on federally owned land and in federal courts. As an example for the states to follow with their own legislation, they have undoubted weight. But only 1.5 per cent of all violent crimes are 'federal' - and more than half occur on American Indian reservations - ultimately supervised by the US Government, rather than the state authorities, from which they are juridically independent.

Or take the death penalty. The addition of 60 new categories of capital offences sounds positively Singaporean. But these cover relatively uncommon, even 'exotic' crimes, such as genocide, a carjacking that leads to death, and murders committed on US government-owned or extra-territorial areas such as a National Park, the Congressional grounds or an offshore oil rig. The 30 or more executions in the US every year are carried out in state prisons, under state laws. The federal death penalty has not been imposed for 30 years. The likelihood, meanwhile, of a three-strike federal offender must be equally small.

Not so at state level. By one estimate, 16 states across the US from Connecticut to California have adopted some variant of baseball's founding dictum. Some would go further: voters in Georgia will pronounce this autumn on a two-strike provision. California, still appalled by the case of a 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered by a released child abductor, is even contemplating a one- strike provision for sex offenders.

No matter that mandatory sentencing prevents a judge from doing what he is paid for, using his experience and wisdom to mete out fitting punishment. Nor is anyone greatly exercised by the inevitable surge in an already bloated jail population (Ohio, for example, will need a new dollars 35m prison every 15 years or so if 'three- strikes' goes through), or by the prospect of the national prison system turning into a Gulag of geriatric hospitals. Retribution and deterrence are the order of the hour. Public backing is overwhelming - by a margin of 58 to 17 per cent, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll.

Nor are automatic life sentences the only innovations. Capital punishment is becoming more common; within the last 10 days Illinois and Maryland have carried out their first executions in 30 years. A dozen or so cities, including Dallas, operate curfews on teenagers. Florida, with the highest crime rate of any US state, last month stopped short of approving 'chemical castration' for rapists. But it passed a law holding parents accountable for the crimes of their children.

In North Carolina, Maryland and Washington DC, youths of 15 or under charged with the most violent crimes are now routinely tried as adults. Another favoured variant is 'truth in sentencing', whereby the sentence handed down is the sentence served. If state governments move too slowly, activists have little trouble gathering enough signatures to put proposals to popular ballot. In Oregon, residents are pressing for the baseball variant to beat them all: the 'grand slam', which scores four runs. Alarmed that draconian measures in neighbouring Washington state and California might send the criminal classes scurrying their way, Oregon has devised a four- pronged response: stricter conditions in prison, less probation, immutable prison terms and mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenders.

Maybe the panic will pass. Now, though, the agitation over crime is a strange mirror of America's other current obsession, reform of the health system. Both are fixated on exterminating disease and its consequences, either by expensive treatment or expensive punishment. Neither is overly concerned with prevention, to keep people out of hospitals and would-be criminals out of the dock. But that is another story - and for the likes of Paul Rivers, already too late.

(Photograph omitted)