To the hard question of crime, there are no easy answers

February 06, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

The issue du jour is crime. It's an oldie, but a goodie. The economy is sailing along. Somalia is a distant memory on a distant continent. The schools are too complicated to even think about.

So, crime. Why not?

Crime, the polls tell us, is now a more pressing concern than health care, which has also gotten complicated. Bill Clinton says have a health-care crisis. Bob Dole says the only crisis is the one Clinton's health-care plan would cause.

Nobody knows who's right. You can catch the debate, though, on C-Span if you're interested. Yeah, I'll wait for the movie, too.

But crime. Crime is different.

Crime is right in front of our faces. It gets meaner on the streets every day. You're scared more often than you want to be, more often than you like to admit.

The politicians, noses to the air, can smell the fear.

Meaning, Bill Clinton is now very, very tough on crime. So is Mario Cuomo. And Jesse Jackson. The Republicans, who have always been tough, now want to get even tougher. (Republican baseball: one strike and you're out.)

Who says no?

Me? You?

My friend who got his head stuffed into a sack at gunpoint the other night and was then driven to an ATM, where he was robbed of $740?

There are some naysayers. Wiser, cooler, calmer heads are telling us that the big crime scare is just your ordinary cycle of concern. And this, too, shall pass.

They point out, rightly, that violent crime has actually decreased slightly since 1981. They point out that the murder rate is virtually the same today as it was 20 years ago. They mention Nixon's law-and-order campaigns and Reagan's get-tough-on-crime campaigns and Bush's Willie Horton campaign.

They tell us there's no reason to be more frightened now than before.

The wiser, cooler, calmer heads may be right. They may also be irrelevant. This time may be different, and for several reasons:

TC * The media. Though I remain unconvinced that violence on TV causes violence, I am pretty sure that violence on TV news raises the level of community fear. When every night on the 11 o'clock news you see another guy with a toe tag, you start to wonder if you'll be next.

* The fall of liberalism. Nobody seems to believe anymore in the old liberal solutions to social problems like welfare and crime. And that includes most liberals. The new emphasis in welfare is on personal responsibility. The new emphasis on crime is punishment.

Who talks about rehabilitation anymore? Fewer people argue against the death penalty. No politician these days wants to be accused of coddling criminals. People want criminals locked up. It doesn't matter that we keep locking up more criminals (twice as many in prison now as 10 years ago; and at a higher rate than any country in the world) without an appreciable impact on crime rates.

Everyone agrees we have to do something. The easy something is more cops, more prisons, longer sentences.

* The boomers. It's always the boomers. It's always that outsized generation that sets the agenda. It is, generally, a libertarian generation. It is, generally, a tolerant generation. It is, now, a scared g-g-generation.

The boomers have grown up. And they have grown-up, middle-aged concerns, like personal safety. If you're 40-something, do you walk down the streets with the same assuredness that you did 20 years ago?

Times have changed. In many black communities, where a generation ago the complaint was that the police were racist, they want more cops on the street.

More police don't seem to work, however. Cities with varying numbers of police often have remarkably similar crime rates. Longer sentences don't seem to work, either. Arrest one drug dealer and another takes his place. There's an endless supply. Three-strikes-and-you're-out guarantees only an old prison population. For young criminals, studies show that boot camps are ineffective.

Half-hearted gun control certainly has no impact.

The truth is the answer goes deeper than the criminal justice system can go. The liberals are right when they say we're attacking the problem on the wrong end, that we have to do something with young people before they turn to crime.

But what do you do?

And how does that solve the problem now?

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