Q U I C K T A K E
CRIME MAY HAVE FALLEN slightly since 1993, but Americans remain anxious about their chances of becoming victims. What worries many people is an upsurge in youth crime and the seemingly ever-more-random nature of urban violence. It doesn't help either that the news media turns a spotlight on particularly shocking crimes, like the abduction and killing of California's Polly Klaas. The truth is, no one should be heartened by the recent dip in crime, because Americans live with a level of crime roughly five times higher than it was just 30 years ago.
According to the U.S Department of Justice, total violent and property crimes fell about 3 percent from 1993 to 1994. During 1994, there were nearly 11 million violent crimes in the United States. In recent years, the U.S. also has experienced a steady growth in the number of people incarcerated for crimes, to today's figure of 1.6 million -- roughly the population of Houston.
Both Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Bill Clinton have been talking tough on crime this year, but what they don't say may be more important: 98 percent of violent crime falls under the jurisdiction of state and local, not federal authorities. In fact, there is not all that much a president can do directly about most crimes, other than use the bully pulpit of the office to talk about crime's causes and cures. And because much crime is committed by young people, the ebb and flow of demographic change affects crime rates, too.
That's a worry because the number of people under age 18 is expected to grow from 69 million in 1995 to 74 million in 2010. Already, more young people are getting in trouble than a decade ago. The arrest rate of children age 10 to 17 accused of violent crimes doubled between 1983 and 1992 and could double again by 2010, according to the Justice Department. If demographics is destiny, the nation could experience a wave of "superpredators" -- young street thugs from single-parent homes and bad schools who know nothing but crime and violence.
Lawmakers and presidents keep trying to get a grip on crime, but their prescriptions vary widely with their ideology. In 1994, Clinton signed a mammoth $30.2 billion omnibus crime bill, backed mostly by congressional Democrats, that authorized grants for 100,000 new police officers, new prison construction and prevention programs. The bill also banned 19 types of assault weapons, authorized the death penalty for dozens of federal crimes and adopted the "three strikes and you're out" rule mandating life sentences for three-time violent felons.
Clinton still mentions the 100,000 additional police officers, but so far only about 26,000 are actually on the streets, and some cities didn't bother even applying for the federal police hiring grants because of a matching funds requirement and the extensive paperwork that was required.
When Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they began to rewrite much of Clinton's crime legislation. High among Republican priorities were replacing prevention programs with block grants, restricting prisoners' rights to appeal death sentences, and repealing the assault weapons ban. The debate sizzled, especially regarding gun control, with opponents saying the assault weapons ban did little to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
Gun control advocates accuse their opponents of kowtowing to the National Rifle Association and assert that gun-related crimes and accidental shootings can be significantly decreased by restricting access to firearms. In general, more Republicans still favor stiff penalties and tough enforcement as the best way to fight crime, while many Democrats are willing to put more emphasis on prevention efforts, including youth curfews and school uniforms.
For his part, Republican Robert Dole has offered a "tough love" strategy aimed at cutting crime and reducing drug use. He would abolish parole for violent criminals; double funding for state prison construction; require prisoners to work full time while incarcerated, with their earnings earmarked for restitution for victims; and create an instant check system to deny gun purchases to violent criminals.
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