Answer true or false: Crime is on the rise?


October 04, 1998|By Brian Sullam

DEAR READERS, we are going to start this morning with a short pop quiz.

Don't groan. It's easy if you have been keeping up with the news. Besides, it will be a true-false test, which means you have a 50 percent change of getting the right answer even if you guess.

Here we go:

1) When compared to last year, the county's crime rate is much greater. True or false?

2) Juvenile crime has been climbing.

3) In the past eight months, 15 murders have occurred in the county.

4) Cars are being stolen here at the rate of six a day.

The answers to questions 1-4: All false.

Surprised? You shouldn't be.

Crime on the decline

Had you been paying close attention to the county's crime news, you might have known that crime is declining slightly.

Although statistical comparisons between 1998 and 1997 can't be made precisely until the end of the year, based on present trends, the crime rate is leveling off, or even dropping.

The number of reported breaking and enterings in 1997 were 3,380. At the end of August of this year, police reported 2,180. Assuming the rate remains the same, the county will have had 3,270 through December -- about 100 less than last year.

Auto thefts could be about the same as last year. Present trends indicate the county will have seen 1,531 cars stolen in 1998, or about 11 more than last year.

Auto thefts have been occurring at a rate of about 4.18 cars per day this year, compared to 4.16 last year.

There have been seven murders so far this year. Eight occurred last year.

Also, theft seems to be running a bit higher. It is possible that the county will have about 12,800 reported thefts this year, compared to 12,217 in 1997.

As for juveniles committing major crimes -- robberies, rapes, thefts -- they are down 3 percent this year.

Most of this statistical data contradicts the popular notion that crime in Anne Arundel, indeed throughout Maryland, is growing.

The county may not have yet experienced the sharp drop reported in New York, where crime rates have dipped as much as 30 percent, but crime is not mushrooming out of control.

Despite Anne Arundel's growing population, which normally results in a parallel increase in criminal activity, the incidence of crime has apparently leveled off.

Boilerplate rhetoric

Crime is one of those "hot button" issues that in past elections generated a good deal of heated -- but not well-informed -- debate. Getting "tough on criminals" has become standard rhetorical boilerplate in campaign brochures and stump speeches.

Many candidates still want more mandatory minimum sentences and the so-called "truth in sentencing" and "three strikes and out" laws. To a large extent, sentencing has been stiffened and there aren't many empty cells in state prisons or local detention centers.

Locking up more offenders has probably made a difference in reducing crime. Criminologists have pointed out that on a national level a very small percentage of the population is responsible for 90 percent of the criminal activity.

Like cockroaches

The problem seems to be that criminals are like cockroaches -- you can't get rid of them.

Even though the state has more people in prison that ever -- more than 20,000 behind bars in state prisons -- we can't seem to stamp out crime.

Studies have shown that maintaining a level of public order and stopping petty and nuisance crime is the best protection against against major crime.

New York City's experience is well-known. Transit police aggressively targeted "turnstile jumpers," arresting and holding them for trial. Over time, the city's incidence of crime declined.

Police undertook other initiatives such as targeting panhandlers and others whose presence on the streets created a sense of disorder. The result was a perceptible drop in the city's crime and a significant improvement in its quality of life.

Good citizenship

James Q. Wilson, a nationally renown criminologist and a major advocate of this style of law enforcement, pointed out that "reducing crime though order maintenance requires the exercise good citizenship. Citizens must accept responsibility both for their behavior and for helping to ensure the safety and security of fellow citizens."

Anne Arundel, fortunately, does not face the magnitude of crime as New York, but it is still a problem -- particularly to those of us who have had cars stolen, houses broken into or worse.

Nevertheless, the issue seems to have lost the level of urgency it had countywide a few years ago.

Perhaps all you test-takers out there really have been paying attention.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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