A Comeback For the Crime Issue

By David S. Broder
Sunday, February 24, 2008

From Pakistan to Serbia, and recurrently in Iraq, the headlines point to the dangers of the world -- most notably the threat of terrorism. And yet when the polling firm Cooper & Secrest Associates asked 1,139 Americans in December which threat they took most seriously, 69 percent chose violent crime and only 19 percent named terrorist attack.

The survey was part of a striking report released yesterday by Third Way, a liberal think tank, and several governors, warning that the crime issue, which has slipped off the political agenda since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, is about to return.

"Four new and dangerous sociological trends are converging to disturb the peace and are threatening a crisis of crime, if not addressed," the report says.

The trends it cites include a huge increase in the number of criminals due to leave prison in the next five years, the infiltration of criminal gangs into the surge of illegal immigrants, the bulge in the number of young people entering the highest-crime years and the technology revolution that has made the Internet a place of danger for unsupervised youths.

The underlying numbers are startling. Twenty years ago, the country's total prison population was 700,000. Next year alone, that many will be released from prison, and, if past trends hold, nearly two-thirds will be rearrested.

In the next five years, the number of young adults and teenagers will have increased by 1 million, and, if past patterns hold, that will boost the number of crimes by 2.5 million.

The Third Way report is chock-a-block with hopeful examples of what some states are doing to head off this explosion. But the bad news is that the federal government seems to be in retreat.

Here are a couple of examples from the section dealing with departing prisoners. Currently, two-thirds of state prisoners lack high school diplomas, and roughly half are illiterate or drug-dependent. Surveys have found that during their imprisonment, only half reported taking any education courses or holding work assignments, and barely more than one-third received help for mental health problems or drug abuse. When released, they mostly found little transition assistance.

To deal with this, Maryland's Democratic governor, Martin O'Malley, started requiring prisoners without high school degrees to take 120 days of classes each year, offering them small payments for their time. Attendance now averages 95 percent, and the state already has conferred 734 diplomas.

Another Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, told me that five years ago, staring at a projected 25 percent increase in prison cells, she and her corrections commissioner launched vocational education and substance abuse programs in the prisons and retrained probation officers as individual case managers. With help from community groups in three cities, they have reduced the crime rate among parolees by 41 percent while stabilizing the prison population and saving the state an estimated $80 million in new prison construction.

That is the good news. The bad news comes from Washington. For exactly a century, since Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation creating what is now the FBI, the federal government has recognized its stake in fighting crime. In the 1990s, with the controversial passage of the Omnibus Crime Act, it pumped billions into hiring, equipping and training police; building prisons; and stiffening sentences. Between 1994, the year that law passed, and 2001, violent crime declined 26 percent and the murder rate fell 34 percent.

But in this decade, Washington has gone into reverse. The report notes that "the Bush administration has cut the major Department of Justice programs by 56 percent from fiscal 2001 to the present." One result is an actual decline in the number of local law enforcement personnel.

Meantime, federal anti-crime resources are being diverted to other priorities. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a member of the Judiciary Committee, has reported a 20 percent decline since Sept. 11, 2001, in the number of FBI agents assigned to crime and drug cases. Newspapers have noted a one-third drop between 2000 and 2005 in the number of cases brought from the FBI to federal prosecutors.

This may explain a striking shift in public attitudes toward the two parties' stances on crime, traditionally a staple of Republican rhetoric. As Rachel Laser of Third Way pointed out to me, the survey found a statistical dead heat between the parties on a question of which would do a better job reducing crime, with 33 percent naming the Democrats and 31 percent the Republicans.

"The issue is up for grabs," Laser said, which may mean that the long period of neglect will come to an end in the coming campaign.


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