Rising wave of violence is attracting limelight Young offenders, elections cited

November 01, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It is the talk of the town. And, uncharacteristically, it has nothing to do with money, power or sex.

"Our issues this Sunday morning: Violence, children, crime, corruption and censorship," said Tim Russert on "Meet the Press."

"Today on 'Face the Nation,' the subject is violence -- violence on the streets, violence on television," echoed Bob Schieffer.

"Welcome to 'Both Sides.' About one thing hardly anyone is taking sides: Deadly violence is a growing menace to all of us and many of us are afraid," pronounced the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

And that was just one Sunday a week ago.

Reflecting the public's increasing frustration and fear -- and the convergence of a stabilizing economy, a growing tide of youth violence and a raft of political campaigns -- the nation's capital has seized upon the current crime wave with the fervor of a wind-driven blaze.

Everyone from lawmakers to scientists is blanketing the airwaves, the halls of Congress, the lecture circuit and the bully pulpit with talk about a problem that now ranks at the top of the United States' list of headaches.

During the past week:

President Clinton, in his speech at the Johns Hopkins University, tied health care reform to passage of his crime bill and the Brady bill, evoking the greatest applause with his talk of the impact of violence.

Attorney General Janet Reno and others testified at a hearing on violence in children's lives. Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly sparked more debate on the National Guard policing city streets. Members of Congress debated the president's crime bill. American University held a panel discussion on violence on television.

The National Rifle Association members debated with gun control advocates on morning TV shows. The conservative Heritage Foundation sponsored a lecture on how states can fight crime.

"It is taking on a fevered pitch," says David M. Altschuler, principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies.

But for all the talk and debate, for all the proposals, reports and conferences, the political posturing and good intentions, many involved in criminal justice are skeptical, even cynical, about how effective such a discussion will be. They say many of the $H solutions being discussed -- from banning assault weapons to curbing TV violence -- amount to little more than Band-Aid fixes to gaping societal wounds.

The increase in violent crime and murders, especially high-profile cases like the Florida tourist killings, the carjacking death of Pam Basu of Savage, Md., and the slaying of Michael Jordan's father, has sparked much of the rhetoric.

Rate of violent crime up

Although the rate of overall crime actually decreased slightly in the past five years, the rate of violent crime increased nearly 19 percent during that period and rose more than 40 percent over the last 10 years, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.

"There is a smattering of cities with extremely high homicide rates -- like D.C. -- that has made people very fearful," says Jerry Wilson, D.C. police chief from 1969 to 1974, who now heads the Crime Control Institute in Washington.

So fearful, in fact, that polls show crime and violence as the "fastest-growing issue" for Americans, says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.

Just last April, most people named the economy and recession as the most important problem facing the country, with crime and drugs ranking fifth, the Newhouse poll showed. This month, crime/drugs/violence has emerged as the primary issue, overtaking health care, unemployment, the economy and the deficit.

'Moral panic'

But aside from sheer statistics, there are other factors contributing to what George Washington University sociologist William Chambliss calls a "moral panic" in the nation's capital.

He and others see part of the current high-level discourse on the problem as part of the administration's campaign to sell the president's crime legislation.

In the same vain, elections around the country -- such as the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey and the mayor's race in New York City -- have put crime back on the front burner, as political campaigns often do.

"It's that time of year," says Mr. Altschuler, who views crime as a cyclical issue.

He believes that violence will begin to drop off the public radar screen after the elections, after the federal legislation is dealt with and as other critical issues, such as the economy, begin to crowd back in.

Already, last year's frenzy over carjacking -- that became a hot concern after several high-profile and brutal episodes -- has faded as a chief worry.

Mr. Newhouse notes that after the cocaine-induced death of Maryland basketball star Len Bias in June 1986, crime and drugs became the No. 1 issue on the country's mind, largely because the economy was in good shape and "there was nothing else out there. In the absence of other critical issues, it surged."

But others believe there is a difference this time.

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