For all its seriousness, the US "crime problem" is hardly unique to the late 20th century. When that perceptive European observer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the fledgling republic back in the early 1830s he found that reporting of crime was one of the preoccupations of the American press. The cities, moreover, were rife with violence and disturbances, enough in fact to lead him to "look upon the size of certain American cities, and especially on the nature of their population, as a real danger which threatens the future security of the democratic republics of the New World. . . ."
The tough recommendations of a new federal task force on violent crime take on an added dimension when considered in the light of America's longstanding battle against lawlessness. The message seems clear: that in a nation as ethnically, educationally, and politically diverse as the US, each generation must take all appropriate steps to ensure the maintenance of domestic order and the swift apprehension and punishment of lawbreakers. But at the same time it is important that Americans remain calm and deliberate in their effort to fight crime so as to avoid the temptation to let the issue be turned into one of political demagoguery and public manipulation. There are already reports, for example, that some politicians, sensitive to public concerns, are planning to use the "crime issue" to rally their followers during next year's congressional campaign.
The new task force is putting the emphasis where it seems to most urgently belong in this particular time in US history -- namely, focusing on efforts to apprehend violent offenders. These are often associated with so-called "street crimes," as distinct from white-collar, political, or organized crime. To that end the task force is uring that the US build more prisons, allow judges to deny bail to some suspects, and relax certain rules of evidence.
As noted on these pages last week, there is strong justification for building some new penal institutions, if for no other reason than to relieve the overcrowding and squalid conditions now found in many of the nation's oldest corrections centers. But the objective must always be not only confinement (although that is certainly important) but also the eventual rehabilitation of the prisoner. Only that, after all, will ever ensure the safety of society from its prison population.
Efforts to take away the independence of the courts through legislative measures to reduce the protection of defendants, however, or to make it easier to introduce questionable evidence are more dubious. Courts properly need maximum latitude in weighing anything as momentous as the question of guilt or innocence. And stringent evidentiary rules, it must not be forgotten, were drawn up to protect the innocent. Police agencies now have a broad range of scientific investigatory methods to obtain evidence legally.
It should be noted in this regard that new Justice Department analysis shows that close to a quarter of violent crimes in the US -- a significant 23 percent -- are committed by juveniles 18 years of age or younger. Obviously, helping this group will require more than just new prison facilities or tough bail-bond measures. Rather, society must look to its homes, schools, churches -- and the overall social, moral and economic climate, including the availability of jobs -- to properly reach and help young people before they are trapped in the vicious cycle of confinement and more crime.
The crime problem in the US remains a serious problem. The solutions, however, will come from the dedication -- and prayers -- of all Americans.