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Crime and the '84 election

January 6, 1984



In planning major new federal programs to combat crime, the Reagan administration is addressing an issue that touches almost all American households. Despite slight declines in recent national crime rates, polls and studies show that the fear of crime remains pervasive throughout US society. Millions of Americans have altered their life styles in recent years to avoid or minimize the likelihood of criminal incidents - from avoiding downtown areas at night to installing sophisticated electronic security systems in their homes.

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Do the two new administration initiatives - expected to be part of the fiscal year 1985 budget - make sense in terms of offering realistic solutions?

The answer would seem to be yes and no.

* The administration is reportedly seeking an additional $200 million for the US Department of Justice. That is a budget hike of around 6 percent.

* The administration is also proposing a modest program to combat violence in schools.

Congress will want to examine carefully both initiatives, particularly the school program. The increase in the Justice Department budget, it should be noted, comes on top of already steady increases in department funding during the Reagan years. Justice officials take pride in pointing out that under Mr. Reagan the department has had the largest percentage increase in dollars and numbers of employees of any major federal agency.

Much of that increase has been used to hire new FBI and drug-enforcement agents out in the country at large - in the cities of America - rather than used for staff increases in Washington. A large part of the planned new funding would be used for similar purposes.

By contrast, the administration's more modest $2 million program to fight crime and disciplinary problems in schools seems more geared to appearances than to results. Granted, the administration talks of a national school safety center to provide training and assistance to help local officials fight classroom-related crime.

The school crime issue is politically appealing. A California Field Poll taken last June showed that 90 percent of all respondents felt that controlling crime and vandalism in schools was a serious problem.

But checking school-related crime and disciplinary problems will require far more than just arresting and or expelling student offenders. Many inner-city schools have shown that imaginative programs can be developed to deal with disciplinary programs, yet done in such a way as to retain the support of the students. Bureaucratic - and punitively oriented - new programs out of Washington are not going to solve what is essentially a challenge best left to neighborhood groups and state and local officials.