First in crime

March 14, 1991

Crime, the problem most frequently cited by Americans when asked their feelings about where the country is headed, lived up to its billing last year: A report released this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee called the United States "the most violent and self-destructive nation on earth," surpassing every other country that keeps crime statistics.

The report noted that murders soared to an all-time high in 1990 -- to 23,300, or nearly three every hour. The murders were more than matched by mayhem: Last year the country also saw record numbers of rapes, robberies and assaults.

These are not statistics President Bush's proposed crime legislation is likely to improve. Tougher sentences for convicted criminals certainly will increase the number of offenders in prison, but the U.S. already incarcerates the highest percentage of its citizens of any country in the world, and under mandatory sentencing rules it will run out of jails long before it runs out of criminals.

Instead, Americans ought to be asking themselves why crime is such a problem in this country compared to other industrialized nations -- and what can be done to alleviate it before, rather than after, it occurs. The fact is, the biggest difference between the U.S. and, say, Switzerland or Great Britain, is not that those countries somehow have more respect for law, or more homogeneous populations, or even stricter gun control laws. The biggest difference is simply that in those countries, government has committed itself to full employment -- that is, economic policies that guarantee that every person who wants a job can find work.

America has never fully accepted the legitimacy of this approach, which smacks of "socialism" and "big government." Yet it is clear that our refusal to acknowledge the critical relationship between crime and unemployment has had disastrous consequences for our cities and society as a whole. A "crime bill" that worked would commit the federal government to a massive jobs program aimed at turning every American into a productive job-holder at a living wage.

Until the nation can summon the will for such a radical undertaking, crime in America will continue its upward spiral and the words of the Senate panel will remain tragically prophetic: "When viewed from the national perspective, these crime rates are sobering," the committee said. "When viewed from the international perspective, they are truly embarrassing."

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