Washington — When US Chief Justice Warren E. Burger delivered his hard-hitting speech against crime earlier this month, he reopened a subject that had almost been forgotten in the rush to save the economy.
He also touched a responsive chord with millions of Americans who see crime -- just as surely as inflation and unemployment -- eroding the quality of their daily lives.
They remember the time when they didn't have to lock the doors of their houses and cars. Now in suburban living rooms a frequent conversation topic is whose home was burglarized last.
Conditions are worse in big cities, especially for the poor and elderly.
Interviews with experts and a check of statistics show that the United States today has more crime than any other country in the industrialized Western world, and the rate has outpaced the population ever since the government began gathering figures 50 years ago.
The rate of reported violent crime in the US is three to four times that of any other Western industrialized country, says Graeme Newman, a professor of criminal justice at State University of New York at Albany, who has studied crime rates from at least 70 nations.
A US Department of Justice survey shows that during 1979, for every 1,000 persons, there were 125 cases of violence, ranging from muggings to murders, and 235 cases of property stolen or homes burglarized.
Although it is difficult to accurately compare US statistics with those of other countries, the homocide figures, which are usually the most reliable, illustrate the much higher relative rate in this country. During the period 1970 to 1975, the murder rate per 100,000 persons in the US was 9. In the United Kingdom, the rate was 1 for every 100,000 population, in Japan 2, and in Canada 2.4. The closest to the US was West Germany with 4.3, less than half the US rate.
Despite the staggering numbers, presidential candidates hardly mentioned crime during the last campaign, and the issue seems almost to have faded into the background.
The reason? "We haven't been having bad riots," says Patrick V. Murphy, former police chief in New York City and president of the Police Foundation, a Washington research center.
"It's an impression of mine that the riots really left a sense of fear in the general public," Mr. Murphy says. But most of the rioting ended during the 1960 s. "Through the '70s, crime has been a declining issue, but actually the crime rates have been increasing."
There is little agreement on the exact causes of American crime. Some criminologists point to the fact that our society places such a high value on material success, tempting many to try to obtain wealth any way they can. Others cite racial prejudice or the fact that the middle class has deserted inner cities.
Some point to the character and history of the nation.
"America always had a very high crime rate," says Norval Morris, professor of law and criminology at the University of Chicago. "We have traditionally had a culture of violence here. It's the dark side of fierce independence and skepticism of government and authority. It's the dark side of an insistence to have freedom, especially the freedom to have handguns."
Americans have tended to fight crime with the tools of private enterprise. Those who can afford such measures hire protection from the burgeoning private police forces, install elaborate burglar alarm systems, or move into low crime-rate areas. Many have armed themselves.
Such private solutions may insulate some people from crime, but they have failed to make American cities, as well as many suburbs, safe. And experts charge that the mounting private arsenals are making matters worse.
"In Harlem or in Bedford-Stuyvesant 15 or 20 years ago, when we'd go into a family fight, we'd send someone to the hospital for stitches," says former police chief Murphy. Today, many wind up in the morgue, he says, because virtually every household has a gun.
While the US has the toughest crime problem in the Western world, it also has one of the clumsiest machineries for combating crime.
American police are more decentralized than any of their European counterparts. "Our police system is so fragmented," says Murphy, pointing to the fact that there are an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 different police forces in the US. In Great Britain, there are only 42 police forces for a population of 50 million.
The European "police are more effective than our police," because the national governments play a bigger role, train the police, and give them mobility in their careers, he says. Here police systems are "very parochial and there is no exchange of knowledge and ideas."
Moreover, he says that US police are "overmotorized." They spend too much time in automobiles, using radios, and not enough time walking in neighborhoods, talking with residents and shop owners. "The people know who commit the crimes, " Murphy says. "The police have to get that information."
For their part, policemen often blame the courts for being too lenient, especially for releasing suspects before their trials. A Washington, D.C., detective complains that he arrested a 17-year-old on robbery charges; the judge released him, and within two weeks the detective and his partner arrested the same boy for another robbery.
In his speech to the American Bar Association, Chief Justice Burger seemed to indicate that he would favor "preventive detention" by which a judge could hold a person without bail if that person were considered "dangerous."
"In all countries other than here, three factors determine bail," says Professor Morris. He lists them as the likelihood of the suspect to fail to appear for trial, tampering with the evidence or interfering with witnesses, and committing a crime.
A person detained without bail can appeal, he says, but in any event the trial for those arrested comes speedily, unlike in US courts where trials can be delayed months.
The American Civil Liberties Union favors speedier trials. But it has charged that preventive detention for any reason other than guaranteeing that a person appears for trial would undermine the principle that a person is innocent until proved guilty.
Some observers, including Chief Justice Burger, put part of the blame for crime on crowded prisons which fail to rehabilitate. The US has more people behind bars than any other Western country. According to 1978 figures, 124 of every 100,000 Americans were held in a state prison, up 50 percent more than the 1972 rate.
Those figures, which indicate overcrowding in jails, also tend to discount arguments that simply sending more people to prison will solve crime problems.
According to Morris, who was raised in Australia and has spent the last 16 years in the US, Americans are not willing to combat crime.
"The fundamental point is that it is not a lack of knowledge that impedes us, it's the lack of political will," he says.
"We know how to build safe prisons, not characterized by riots, brutality, and rape. We know how to bring people to trial reasonably swiftly and how to help victims. We know the connection between handguns and homicide and fatal accidents.
"It's not a question of knowledge. It's a question of political will. You only get arguments of political wisdom and political costs."
Adds Morris of the chief justice's speech: "Everything he says about crime is true, but I really don't think people care on budget day or election day."
Wilbur Rykert, a criminologist and former state trooper in Michigan, decries the fact that "there is no outrage" at the crime rate. "We've accepted it," he says.
Mr. Rykert points to the one national effort to prevent crime, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) of the US Department of Justice, as typical. The agency tried isolated programs and passed out funds, but its crime prevention efforts were never institutionalized by local police. It became a favorite political whipping post and has now been all but closed down.
Insurance companies, makers of burglar alarms, and private police agencies launched the Crime Prevention Association of America four years ago, with Rykert as president.
Although President Reagan has made little mention of crime, his administration has made one change. New Attorney General William French Smith has picked violent crime as the top priority for the department. Under President Carter, the department targeted white-collar crime.
So far, however, the Reagan Administration has not indicated how it might tackle the crime problem.