The Magazine

Completing the War on Crime

The crime rate has been reduced, but it's still too high. Here's a common sense agenda for bringing it down even further

Jan 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 18 • By ANDREW PEYTON THOMAS
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Is crime dead as a national issue? Ever since the nation's crime rates began their historic surge in the 1960s, crime has been one of a handful of social problems that have reliably dominated presidential campaigns. The current contest, however, is shaping up as the first in 40 years in which crime does not figure prominently in the national debate.

This silence is welcome evidence of national renewal. Even allowing for occasional statistical fudging by police departments in Philadelphia and elsewhere, the tumbling crime rates of the last seven and a half years are a phenomenal and undeniable public-policy success. This coast-to-coast decline -- a drop just as historic, if not as steep, as the upward spike in the sixties -- has ushered the crime issue off the national stage and focused the attention of politicians and journalists on other domestic concerns.

Even so, it is odd that the nation's leading politicians are treating the crime problem as an anachronism on the order of the Warsaw Pact. They may sincerely believe that crime is no longer a timely issue, but the public begs to differ. When the Gallup organization asked Americans in May 1999 what "the most important problem facing this country" is, the most common response was "ethics/moral/family decline," at 18 percent. Crime was second, with 17 percent. When those who cited "guns/gun control" (10 percent) and "drugs" (5 percent) -- terms that are often substitutes for crime -- are included, crime dwarfs every other problem. It is likely to be a salient national issue through the 2000 election.

Moreover, anyone hoping that crime rates will indefinitely follow a downward trajectory should take note of the most recent crime statistics. For the first time since crime rates began their nosedive in 1992, there are hard signs that this great decline may be bottoming out. In New York, Los Angeles, and other cities with populations larger than one million, homicide rates are starting to rise. In 1999, New York's homicide rate increased by 8 percent. In Los Angeles, the growth was 2.5 percent.

These upturns are small but significant. Big-city crime trends in the 1990s proved a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the country. Moreover, it was the downturn in urban homicide rates, in particular, that presaged the decline in overall national crime rates. The New York Times noted in December that in some of the city's neighborhoods, robbery and burglary have risen in tandem with a resurgence of open, street-corner drug trafficking. Previously sanguine police chiefs and criminologists are beginning to predict the end of the law-and-order boom.

Even after this decade's stunning success -- attributable mostly to a 200 percent increase in the incarceration rate and the shrinking of the crime-prone demographic group, young males -- America still suffers from a substantial crime problem. Homicide rates, for example, have fallen to their 1967 level. But that is still 42 percent higher than the homicide rate in 1958, when the rate began to creep upward. The Montreal Gazette noted recently that in 1998, there were 700 homicides in Chicago but only 42 in Montreal, whose population is two-thirds that of the Windy City. Juvenile arrest rates in the United States remain 24 percent higher than they were in 1969, and a new increase in the population of males between the ages of 15 and 24 is upon us.

Crime control also has become a very expensive endeavor, in both money and wasted lives. It is estimated that on February 15, 2000, the number of Americans in prison or jail will reach 2 million. If we aspire to remain a just and humane society, we cannot incarcerate with equanimity the millions of our fellow citizens who are so lacking in self-control and decency that they cannot be trusted to obey the law.

Sound statecraft and prudent politics require that our national leaders continue to address the nation's refractory crime problem. True, the Framers of the Constitution intended crime control to be mostly the province of state and local governments, not federal policymakers. Unfortunately, the federal courts have not adhered to this vision. As a result, federal judges annually fatten the nation's law books with new or annotated criminals' rights that deprive our society of critical tools for law enforcement. Accordingly, the greatest service a president or congressman can render the cause of domestic tranquillity is to check, or preferably reverse, these ill-begotten rulings. Federal elected officials also can authorize experimental projects in the federal criminal justice system to serve as models for criminal justice reforms around the country.