Lots of tough talk on crime, but not many close looks

MIKE LITTWIN

November 15, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

There's a lot of tough talk these days on crime. It's the issue of the '90s. Even health care pales in comparison. Health care doesn't seem quite so important once you've become a chalk outline on a sidewalk.

If politicians needed any convincing, they got it big time in L.A. and New York, where fear of crime has put two Republican mayors in office. You don't think that scared some people?

Crime now is a party-neutral issue. In Washington, the Democratic mayor calls for the National Guard to help patrol the streets.

Yes, the talk is tough. Senators are talking very tough.

Liberal senators stand up to threaten TV with censorship if the medium does not show more restraint.

Senators of all stripes are lining up behind a new comprehensive anti-crime bill. It calls for 47 more crimes that could be punished with the death penalty. It calls for more prisons, too. Many more prisons. More cops. Everyone agrees we need more cops on the street.

It's a $22 billion crime bill that does all these things and more.

It's very tough on criminals. But what does it really mean for crime?

My guess: Not much.

Oh, it isn't that people -- even politicians -- don't want to do something. People very much want to do something.

There is such desperation in the air right now that the Brady Bill -- a very narrow gun-control bill -- has finally passed the House.

I'll let you in on a couple of dirty little secrets, though. The NRA is right about the Brady Bill. It won't do much to lessen crime. And, just as the NRA insists, the Brady Bill is the first step toward what many of its proponents hope is much tougher gun-control legislation. Which probably wouldn't be nearly as effective as many people think.

More prisons? Gun control?

There are four times as many people in prison today as there were in 1970. Do you feel safer?

Since 1988, murder is up 19 percent. Most murders are committed with guns. You can throw out the Second Amendment as far as I'm concerned. But then there's this statistic: Since 1988, forcible rape is up 24 percent. Is that a gun crime?

People are scared of crime. They watch TV and they see real-life dead people on the 11 o'clock news, and they think they're next. The truth is, most of the killing is a byproduct of the urban drug wars. That's where the crime wave is.

How do you solve that problem? Lock up a drug dealer, and somebody is standing in his place faster than you can say nickel bag. Get rid of the guns? There are 200 million guns in this country. Good luck.

Every so often, crime gets personalized, and people get angry. That happened recently in Baltimore when a pair of 10-year-olds, on consecutive days, were hit by gunfire. One died, one of 300-plus murders so far this year in Baltimore.

A few days later, there was a picture in the paper that hit you right in the gut. It showed an elementary-school classroom full of kids with their hands raised. They were raised in response to their teacher's question: How many of you know someone who has been shot?

One little girl told, matter-of-factly, about how her uncle had been killed and a cousin had been shot and a brother had gotten it in the leg. And on and on. You're afraid of crime? How many people do you know who have been shot?

There were two other incidents in Baltimore that were, in their way, perhaps even more frightening than the shootings.

In one case, an 8-year-old punched "Officer Friendly," who had stopped by the school to tell children that police were their friends.

A week later, a couple of 13-year-olds were fighting outside their school. Mayor Schmoke saw them, stopped his car and broke up the fight. Except one of the kids then shoved the mayor in the chest.

Kids punch cops and shove mayors. That's the reality. The death penalty won't solve that. Neither will gun control or more prisons or presidential speeches or even more cops on the beat.

You want a crime bill? Put one together that attacks the problems of hopelessness and poverty and anger and rage. Attack teen pregnancy and dropout rates. Attack the problem at the beginning and not just the end, although the symptoms must be attacked, too. This is not a new idea. It is, however, an expensive idea.

But check your prisons, and see how many of your violent criminals are college graduates. See how many had good jobs. See how many thought they had a future. Then you'll know what to do.

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