This Murderous Nation

January 07, 1992

The number of murders in Baltimore City was down in 1991. From 305 in 1990 to 304. Some decline! Murder, unlike many other crimes, has begun an ominous rise in America's cities. This started in the mid 1980s, after several years of declining murder rates.

Such a trend is especially discouraging at the beginning of the 1990s. The 1960s and 1970s, as conservative Attorney General William Barr put it recently, were "an era of permissiveness in criminal justice. The decade of the 1980s was when we got back to the basics."

Yes, the '80s had a lot going for them. Judges got tougher at all levels, as sentencing guidelines were adopted by numerous jurisdictions. Prison construction boomed -- some $30 billion in the 1980s, doubling capacity. Also, the most crime-prone segment of the population -- males between the ages of 15 and 34 -- went down as a percentage of the total population. Law enforcement personnel rose in the big cities where murder is most prevalent -- by about 20-25 percent in cities over 100,000 population.

But the basics did little to stop the murder epidemic. The figures aren't all in yet for 1991, but it is likely that another national record was set. Washington, D.C., whose rate of murders leads the nation year after year, seems to have done it again in 1991 -- 487 total, which is four more than in 1990 -- for a rate of 77.8 per 100,000 population. That is nearly double the rate for Baltimore. Given the sorry record in Washington, we wonder what Attorney General Barr could be thinking of when he says he can help cut the murder rate by reassigning FBI agents from monitoring suspected Soviet agents to special violent crime squads in big cities. It has not worked in the nation's capital.

Routine thinking is not going to do much to stop the killing. Getting down to basics in the 1980s, spending a lot more more money on conventional law enforcement approaches -- more police, more and tougher judges, more cells -- worked somewhat but hardly enough.

Eugene Methvin, who was a member of the President's Commission on Organized Crime, wants to identify the most likely repeat young offenders and keep them behind bars till they outgrow their violent ways. This would immediately double again the prison capacity, but "will break the back of America's 30-year crime wave," he wrote recently. We doubt there is the political resolve to take this approach, even if his predicted outcome was assured. Even so, bold, unconventional thinking of one sort or another is needed to deal with the problem. Ending permissiveness and getting back to basics has not been enough.

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