CHIEF JUSTICE Warren E. Burger made a remarkable effort yesterday to force the problem of crime in America in the top of the new national agenda. In a speech that must be the most startling of his long career, the chief justice painted a picture of America as a frightening place to live. Isn't it time, he seemed to be asking, for an all-out attack on the source of the fear that keeps citizens off the streets and has brought buglar alarms, multiple door locks and handguns into their homes?
Pointing to the statistics on crime in New York and Washington, the chief justice said that "casual, day-by-day terrorism" in almost every large city exceeds the casualties of all the reported incidents of international terrorism in any year. "Why do we show such indignation over alien terrorists and such tolerance for the domestic variety?" he asked. "Are we not hostages within the borders of our own self-styled enlightened, civilized country?"
Justice Burger's indictment of the American reaction to crime is extremely harsh -- and accurate. It is one that other officials and ordinary citizens have made in the past. But, by putting the prestige of his office behind it, the chief justice may be able to grab the attention of the national leaders. He needs to do so because his prescription for reducing crime, while largely conventional, is terribly expensive.
Among other things, he called for more and better-trained policemen, faster criminal trials, shorter appellate review of convictions and total reform of the prison system. Each of these, if the target levels of the chief justice are even to be approached, will require vastly more money than the federal and state governments now spend on them. Would it be worth the price? The answer has to be yes; the economic price victims of crime now pay is larger, even without assigning any monetary value to human life and personal injury.
At least two of the chief justice's proposals are controversial. He wants to bail release laws rewritten to make it easier for judges to hold dangerous suspects in jail, and he wants a complete reexamination of the judicial philosophy that permits so many post-trial attacks on the validity of convictions. To be acceptable, the former must go hand-in-hand with faster trials, better jails and more court personnel. The latter proposal is certain to meet resistance from those who remain skeptical of the quality of justice administered in many state court systems.
Those are details, however, that do not detract from the chief justice's basic message: crime in the country is out of control and everybody is complacent about it. He may be overstating his case, but not greatly so, in declaring that the fight against crime "is as much a part of our national defense as the Pentagon budget."
By picking an audience of the nation's lawyers to whom to deliver this message, the chief justice put the burden of translating it into action on the right people. Lawyers designed and operate the court system. They wield unusual power in the state and local goverments, which have the prime responsibility for controlling crime. It is time for them, and the rest of us, to put up the money and provide the tools to get through this national nightmare in the streets and inside our homes.