The Clinton administration on Tuesday issued its version of a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" crime measure, which officials estimated would incarcerate only 200 to 300 prisoners a year for violent federal offenses.
Despite that estimate by administration officials, Vice President Al Gore said at a White House news conference that the proposal would make a "huge dent" in crime.
The measure would sentence a felon convicted for the third time of a violent federal crime to life in prison. The White House is hoping that its proposal will replace two Republican-sponsored versions, which include a broader list of crimes in their definition of what constitutes a "strike."
Like those versions, President Clinton's measure would count crimes like murder, kidnapping, rape and firearms-related offenses. But it would exclude nonviolent drug crimes or purse snatchings, which could be federal offenses under certain circumstances.
Attorney General Janet Reno, appearing with Gore, said the effect of the federal law would "not be overwhelming," but White House officials said it was never meant to be.
"The whole point is to get at that narrow band of serious repeat offenders for whom life sentences make sense," said Bruce Reed, a White House domestic policy adviser.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who will introduce the measure in the House, said its chief aim is to create a ripple effect in similar legislation at the state level, where some three-strike proposals have already gained popularity.
But other officials repeated their belief that a three-strike measure is simplistic. Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said states would learn the wrong lesson if they mimicked the Clinton proposal.
"What is misleading is the context this is discussed in by everyone else, that this is an answer," Biden said of the proposal. "It should be put in context, which is, even if this passes, it doesn't mean a whole lot."
And some members of the House, including leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, have said the anti-crime measure should focus on prevention instead of punishment.
But the three-strikes approach has gained public attention. Tuesday, Marc Klaas of Petaluma, Calif., lobbied for passage. A repeat offender is accused of kidnapping and killing his daughter, Polly.
The White House proposal will compete with two other versions in the Senate anti-crime bill. Each measure, one sponsored by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and the other by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, offer different definitions of what crimes would be covered by the statute.