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Federal Crime Control: Background, Legislation, and Issues

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Publication Date: October 2008

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32824

Topic: Justice (Crime and criminals)


States and localities have the primary responsibility for prevention and control of domestic crime, while the federal government's role is limited. As crime became more rampant, the federal government has increased its involvement in crime control efforts. Over a period of 20 years, Congress enacted five major anti-crime bills and increased appropriations for federal assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies. Since the terrorist attacks, however, federal law enforcement efforts have been focused more on countering terrorism and maintaining homeland security. Amid these efforts, however, Congress continues to address many crime-related issues.

Many have attributed the increased attention the federal government gave to crime issues in the 1980s and 1990s to rising crime rates. The violent crime rate began to increase in the 1960s, peaking in the late 1980s and mid-1990s and began to decline in the late 1990s, continuing to the present day. The decline in the violent crime rate coincides with national attention being focused away from domestic crimes and more on securing the homeland against terrorism. The declining violent crime rate coupled with the recent terrorist attacks have led Congress to focus federal funding to first responders, while federal funding to state and local law enforcement for more traditional crime fighting activities has seen a mix of increases and decreases. The 108th Congress consolidated two popular grant programs into a newly created grant program, but funded at a lower level -- raising questions about the amount and shape of federal support to state and local law enforcement in the future.

Other crime-related issues have also surfaced in recent years. For example, the federal sentencing guidelines were called into question when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision in law that made them mandatory. Congress may consider legislation that would address the Court's concern with respect to the guidelines. Congress may also revisit the issue of sentencing disparity with respect to crack and powder cocaine. In addition to sentencing-related issues, other crime-related legislation may be the subject of oversight or further refining by Congress. For example, legislation that seeks to raise the standards of crime labs may continue to be an interest to the Congress, reflecting the wide variability in quality in the labs.

Recently passed legislation aimed at protecting the public from sex offenders has come into question with respect to its effectiveness. Congress may want to examine more closely registration and notification laws and the sufficiency of federal funding for state registration enforcement. Other possible issues include providing oversight to the Department of Justice with respect to the development of national standards for preventing sexual assaults in prisons. Additionally, Congress may consider broadening the federal definition of hate crimes. Congress has begun to consider a measure (H.R. 1279) that would broaden the scope of the federal government's role in prosecuting violent crimes committed by members of youth gangs. With respect to gun control, Congress may consider legislation that would extend the semiautomatic assault weapons ban, which expired last year, as well as legislation that would regulate gun shows, among other things. This report will be updated as legislation warrants.