CRIME IS down for the eighth year in a row, so why don't Americans feel safer? Public opinion polls show that voters still rank crime as one of their most serious worries, and most Americans say they don't feel completely safe in their homes or when they go out at night. Despite figures released this week that show that serious crimes declined by 7 percent in 1999, most people believe crimeremains too high. And they're right.
It's important to put crime in some perspective. Violent crime in the United States peaked in 1991, when some 758 violent crimes and more than 5,100 serious property crimes were committed per 100,000 population. In 1960, that figure was only 161 violent crimes per 100,000. Between 1960 and 1970, the violent-crime rate doubled. It doubled again between 1970 and 1990. Even with a decade of falling crime rates, serious crime is higher than it has been through most of our history.
And while overall serious crime may be down nationally in the last year, some cities experienced an increase in crime. Between 1998 and 1999, murder went up in New York, Newark, N.J., San Francisco, St. Louis, Phoenix and Denver, as well as in smaller cities such as Abilene, Texas.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Flint, Mich.; and Sacramento, Calif.
Experts, too, are worried that some of the very factors that helped drive down crime -- harsher criminal laws, longer prison sentences, a smaller cohort of young men in the age group most likely to commit crimes -- can't continue to produce major drops in the crime rate. Many of the prisoners who have served those longer sentences are now ready for release, and some fraction of them will again turn to crime. And the demographics of crime suggest we may be in for another uptick as more young men born during the mini-baby boom from 1988 to 1992 enter the dangerous ages of 15 to 25.
Politicians understand Americans' fears about crime, which is why both Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have touted their own "get tough" records.
Mr. Gore has the harder case to make, since most criminal-justice reform takes place at the state level, not in Washington. Governor Bush can point to the country's largest prison-building effort, a record number of executions and higher incarceration rates for violent juvenile offenders -- all of which helped reduce the violent-crime rate by 20 percent during his administration to a 20-year low. The vice president points to the Clinton administration's efforts to put more police on the street, which has produced only about 60,000 additional cops nationwide, despite the promise of 100,000.
Nonetheless, Mr. Gore offered some sensible suggestions recently, including money for states to provide mandatory drug testing and treatment for prisoners and parolees, since a majority of crime in the United States is drug-related. Governor Bush has already increased funding for drug treatment in Texas prisons by almost 50 percent since he's been in office, but clearly, most states need to do more to combat drug use in prison.
It's not enough to lock up criminals and keep them behind bars for longer periods. If we have any hope of ensuring that these men (and increasing numbers of women) won't return to lives of crime when they get out, we must make prisons themselves crime-free. And most prisons are anything but that today.
In all too many prisons, inmates have relatively easy access to drugs, and violence and intimidation among prisoners are a way of life. While estimates of the number of rapes committed in prison are difficult to obtain, since most victims remain silent in fear or humiliation, one academic study of prison rapes in a medium-security facility in California suggests that about 14 percent of all male prisoners are raped during their incarceration. Prison rape is a national disgrace.
Americans have a right to be safe and secure in their homes and neighborhoods. But one of the keys to reducing crime is not only to rid our streets of criminals, but to rid our prisons of the crimes committed there.
Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.
Dead by murder this year
The number of murders in Baltimore City so far.
SOURCE: Baltimore City Police Department