Statistics show crime rate dropping even as fear of violence is increasing

December 06, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Even as government officials press for tougher anti-crime measures, government statistics -- including FBI figures released yesterday -- show crime decreasing across the United States in nearly all categories.

Yet the paradox is anything but contradictory to many law enforcement officials and criminologists.

"The small reported declines may be positive, but I doubt most Americans will draw much comfort from them, because the levels of violent crime and drug trafficking remain so staggering," FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said.

The latest statistics show that serious crime reported to police during the first half of 1993 dropped 5 percent from the same period in 1992, including a 3 percent decline in violent offenses.

Ronald K. Noble, assistant treasury secretary for enforcement, said his first reaction to the national crime figures is that they can't be right.

"But even if they are, it doesn't matter because the figures in no way reflect the anger the American people feel about crime, particularly violent crime," he said. "The nature of it is what troubles Americans -- kids with automatic weapons in places like Little Rock, Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and the kinds of violent crime that were unheard of 10 years ago."

The declines are not new. Last month, as the Senate ratcheted up the crime bill to make it the toughest and most sweeping measure since the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that crimes against U.S. residents and households had sunk to a 20-year low last year.

Despite the declines, criminologists and other experts contend that public concern is mounting because of the randomness of violence, its drastic consequences and the increasing role played by very young offenders.

The news media are said to feed the alarm, particularly on local television programs, where bloody crime incidents have replaced highway carnage at the top of the news.

"Two things have happened to make people more fearful," said Gerald M. Caplan, dean of the McGeorge Law School in Sacramento, Calif. "First, there is no longer the widespread belief that police and courts can protect you. This makes people more frightened and gives crime sort of the character of cancer. . . .

"The second thing is that the character of crime has changed," said Mr. Caplan, who headed the National Institute of Justice in Washington and served as general counsel of the District of Columbia police before teaching law. "Crime is teen-age, it's impulsive, it's irrational. Doing injury is the purpose. . . . It's like getting hit by lightning."

"What has everybody so frightened is the thought of the 14- and 15-year-olds running around with assault weapons," said James Q. Wilson, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor of management and public policy, whose writings on crime have influenced U.S. attorneys general for the last two decades.

If the young (12- to 24-year-olds) were the same portion of the population now that they were when the national victimization survey began in 1973, officials would be reporting that the nation's crime rate had reached a new high instead of a 20-year low, said Michael Rand, a Bureau of Justice Statistics official.

In 1973, the 12- to 24-year-olds were about 31 percent of the U.S. population; in 1992, they accounted for 22 percent. "So, it's an increasing crime rate for a decreasing part of the population," Mr. Rand said.

The lack of data on juvenile crime and how it is handled by the criminal justice system is a damaging shortcoming, Dr. Wilson said.

"Nobody has figured out quite what to do yet," he said. "Why are juveniles running loose with guns? It's hard to answer. We don't have any good data on juvenile justice and how it performs. It goes on behind closed doors. We have a reasonably good sense of what's happening to adult offenders but no idea of what's happening to juveniles."

"There's no question the public is increasingly concerned by violence. This is augmented by the fact that we're seeing a lot more in the way of gun crimes, particularly gun crimes by kids, and that's scary," Alfred Blumstein, dean of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

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