'Stupid Crazy, Ineffectual'

February 13, 1994|By KAREN HOSLER Lyle Denniston of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The frenzied competition under way in Washington to address the nation's renewed preoccupation with crime has produced what critics say are mostly "phony, feel-good" measures that have more to do with attracting votes than law enforcement.

"A lot of this stuff is basically political rhetoric that isn't going to be any use to us," Darrel Stephens, chief of police in St. Petersburg, Fla., said of the $22 billion crime bill now moving through Congress. "It's focused too much on punishment and not enough on prevention."

The federal government's ability to deal with the crime is necessarily limited because more than 95 percent of offenses are handled at the state and local level. That never seems to inhibit federal politicians, though, who have produced a crime bill almost every election year since 1968.

Some parts of this year's legislation will be welcomed by those on the front lines of crime-fighting, particularly the money for 100,000 additional police officers -- though their designated use as "community police" is not universally popular.

But even Senate Judiciary Chairman Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat and chief author of the original measure, has denounced a number of proposed additions as "stupid, crazy, ineffectual or counterproductive." These include "three-strikes-and-you're-out" -- mandatory life terms for repeat offenders, backed by President Clinton and many others -- expansion of the federal death penalty to include 50 offenses and attempts to eliminate parole in state prisons.

The politicians on Capitol Hill and in the White House are responding to recent national surveys showing that crime often tops the list of problems Americans believe need urgent attention.

"It's revenge for the taxpayers," who are outraged over recent horrific crimes, such as the California kidnap-murder of Polly Klaas, allegedly by a twice-convicted felon; the shooting of 23 commuters during a racially motivated rampage on the Long Island Railroad; and the wave of killings of tourists in Florida, said Marc Mauer, director of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit criminal justice research group.

But the sense of urgency among voters is not the result of any dramatic increase in overall violence in recent months.

Although some cities, including Baltimore, reported higher rates of most violent crimes last year, there is scant evidence of a national crime wave.

In fact, violent crime overall actually decreased in the United States during the first six months of 1993 compared with the year before, according to Uniform Crime Reports by the FBI, which showed a decline in all categories except murder, which remained unchanged.

National statistics do point to differences in the nature of crime these days, especially the tendency for younger and younger children -- black and white -- to be involved in crimes with guns, both as victims and perpetrators.

For example, the rate of death from gun homicide for blacks ages 12 to 14 more than tripled over the past dozen years, from 2.4 to 8.2 per 100,000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Among whites ages 15 to 19, the rate grew 73 percent between 1979 and 1991 with a jump to 11.8 per 100,000 from 6.8.

This growing incidence of youths with guns has changed the "psychology of crime," Mr. Biden says, so that powerfully built adult men for the first time feel vulnerable even when no weapon is visible.

"If there's a 12-year-old kid with baggy pants and he wants my wallet, he's got it," said Mr. Biden, noting that in earlier times he would surely have resisted such a robbery attempt.

But as for a crime wave, the FBI statistics show that the sharpest increases in violent crime occurred between the 1960s and 1970s. Although aggravated assaults have continued to rise steadily, the murder rate and the overall crime rate have remained relatively constant since the early 1980s.

"When you put the 'crime crisis' of today in perspective, this is a hoax," Yale Kamisar, University of Michigan law professor and one of the country's leading experts on criminal law, said in a recent interview. "We are told in almost every decade that we are in a 'crime crisis.'

"Crime became the No. 1 domestic crisis in the 1960s," he added. "It's now back up there. The media have gotten hold of it and won't let go. Every TV station reports every night, one more murder. It's sort of in the air. The mood [about crime] in this country is uglier than it has ever been."

Pollsters say one reason fear of crime has bubbled to the top of the national agenda again is that other worries -- about the state of the economy and world tensions -- have declined.

"Crime is not any worse than it's been for the past 10 years," said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. "But as these other concerns have faded, something had to move in to fill the void, and crime was a good candidate."

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