Good news amid bad on crime Columbia man says numbers show improvement

January 12, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

If you think that crime in America is spiraling hopelessly out of control, spend some time with Lawrence Greenfeld.

Mr. Greenfeld, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man, lives in Columbia and works for the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington.

He has some good news and the numbers to back it up.

Consider:

* The violent crime rate in the nation actually fell from about 34 victims per 1,000 people in 1982 to about 31 per 1,000 in 1991.

* The percentage of households experiencing crime steadily decreased, from 32.1 percent in 1975 to 23.7 percent in 1991.

"I think this is good news," said Mr. Greenfeld. "You rarely hear the good news."

One of the reasons we know these things is because of Mr. Greenfeld. Since he started working at the bureau in 1982, the agency has increased the number of publications on the corrections system from six reports a year to 20 or more.

As associate director, Mr. Greenfeld helped bring in strong data analysts from the Census Bureau and also helped develop customized computer data programs. The agency can now respond more quickly and efficiently to inquiries from politicians, the press and the public, Mr. Greenfeld said.

"You get an answer out of this place when you ask a question," he said.

This week, the 24,000-member American Correctional Association will give Mr. Greenfeld a national award during its winter conference in Miami for "his efforts in designing and developing the nation's most comprehensive, creative and accurate correctional data collection program."

This week's award has added meaning for him, because it is named for Peter P. Lejins, his former criminal justice and criminology professor and mentor at the University of Maryland at College Park.

"I'm very happy," Mr. Lejins said last week from his home. "It's unusual that an award in my name would be given to a former student."

Mr. Lejins, now a professor emeritus, estimated that he had taught 10,000 people since coming to the university in 1941 and recalled the 45-year-old Mr. Greenfeld as "an exceptionally serious and good student."

Each year, Mr. Greenfeld's office produces reports drawn from nearly 1,300 federal and state correctional facilities, 3,300 local jails and more than 4,000 probation and parole agencies.

According to "Violent State Prisoners and Their Victims," women were 50 percent more likely than men to attack people they knew in 1986.

"Capital Punishment 1991" reveals that 3.8 percent of people sentenced to death since 1977 have actually been executed.

As for "Women in Jail 1989," there were 37,253 of them.

The reports help those who make public policy, wardens and police agencies develop a broader and more detailed understanding of what's going on in the nation's streets and prisons. The reports also explode some of the more popular myths about crime.

One of the biggest myths, Mr. Greenfeld says, is that the national crime rate is going up.

For instance, from 1981 to 1991, the rate of crimes against people, including theft, robbery and assault, declined 23.4 percent. The rate of crimes against property, including burglary, dropped 27.9 percent during the same period.

Mr. Greenfeld attributes the discrepancy between public perception and reality to a several factors.

One is that the news media highlight sensational cases and sometimes focus on raw numbers instead of per capita rates. For instance, the number of slayings might rise, but the population might increase even more, reducing the overall homicide rate.

"If you read about homicides, you would feel that basically the world was out of control," he said. "The homicide rate in 1980 was higher than the homicide rate in 1990 nationally."

The increasingly random and brutal nature of crime has also frightened more and more people. Mr. Greenfeld cited the slaying of Howard County resident Pam Basu, who was dragged to her death last fall during a carjacking, as an example.

A third factor is that more people report crimes today than was true 10 years ago. Mr. Greenfeld attributes that, in part, to victims' needs getting more attention from the police and the courts.

The decrease in the national crime rate results partly from the doubling of the prison population in the past decade, he said. Since the early 1980s, the prison population has swelled from 400,000 to more than 800,000, largely because of increased drug arrests.

Mr. Greenfeld also notes that as the population grows older, there are fewer young people -- traditionally society's most likely criminals -- to commit offenses.

None of that is to suggest that Mr. Greenfeld thinks that all is well. He thinks crime is a major national problem, but perhaps not quite as bad as some people think.

Mr. Greenfeld got his start in criminal justice as a probation officer in Fairfax County, Va., in the late 1960s. He learned some valuable lessons there, he said.

During his tenure, he compiled statistics and carried a caseload that included two teen-age brothers who were constantly in trouble for everything from burglary to auto theft.

"I had made a commitment to myself that I was going to rehabilitate these kids," he said. "The older of the two . . . was subsequently killed in a drug deal."

"In the brief period that you intervene in somebody's life, you should have very limited expectations of success," he said.

Mr. Greenfeld went on to do criminal-justice planning for the governor's office in Maryland and an analysis of a $160 million national crime program before moving to the federal government.

He lives with his wife, Barbara, the director of admissions at Howard Community College, and his 15-year-old son, David, a sophomore at Atholton High School.

Asked about hobbies and other interests, Mr. Greenfeld referred to his work: "This, to me, is fun. I can't think of anything I find more interesting."

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