Numbers on Crime Reveal a Different Picture From the `Crisis' That Many Politicians Paint

AS arguments ricochet around Washington as to whether there is, in fact, a health-care crisis, policymakers in the capital could similarly match wits on another front-and-center issue: crime.

Everything that is been said on this issue in recent months - from President Clinton's State of the Union speech to collective statements from the nation's governors - would indicate that there is now a crisis of dramatic proportions.

But many criminal-justice specialists say statistics paint a more complex picture than politicians' rhetoric.

Figures compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show little or no growth in the overall crime rate for the last two decades.

``All the empirical data are absolutely clear. The crime rate, including violent crimes, has not changed in the last 20 years,'' says William Chambliss, a professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington.

The public's heightened worries about crime - a New York Times/CBS poll conducted in late January showed it had surpassed the economy as a public concern - may be rooted more in the kinds of crimes being committed today than in aggregate numbers of crimes.

``I see a basis for concern,'' says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, ``and that relates to the growing numbers of young people who have guns and are using them in random ways at strangers.''

Only 25 percent of homicides committed by adults are against people they don't know, he adds, while 35 percent of killings by youths involve strangers.

Lola Odubekun, an analyst with the Vera Institute of Justice Inc. in New York City, says the nation's largest city has seen a drop in crime since 1990, but ``that doesn't mean it's getting better in any given neighborhood.''

If people's daily experience is abandoned buildings and gunfire, ``it's no comfort that the overall crime statistics have gone down,'' she adds.

And there is more than one way to look at the crime numbers.

What is happening overall, Mr. Blumstein says, is an up-and-down pattern over many years. He agrees that crime rates over the last two decades have been essentially flat, and that the past two years have shown another downturn in overall crime.

FBI figures show only crime reported to the police. But through the mid- and late 1980s, Mr. Chambliss says, surveys done by the BJS - which rely on asking some 115,000 people whether they have been victims of a crime - showed an increase of 10 percent to 15 percent in the numbers of people reporting crime to officials.

Typically, a lot of crime never reaches official records. ``Two-thirds of crime is not reported to the police, including half of all violent crime and 40 percent of rapes,'' says Stuart Smith, a BJS spokesman.

FBI figures also show that the incidence of some crimes, such as rape, has grown significantly. Rape has risen steadily from 22 reported incidents per 100,000 people in 1972 to 42 in 1992. Experts point out that rape is much more widely reported now than it was in the past.

These experts also note that aggravated assault may be more broadly defined now than in the past, accounting for some of the higher numbers in that category. The FBI reports 188 aggravated assaults per 100,000 inhabitants in 1972 compared with 441 in '92.

On the other hand, BJS figures indicate that robbery is down 46 percent over the last 20 years, and theft is down 35 percent, according to Mr. Smith. Violent crime among the young, however - and particularly among African-American youths - has risen steeply. Among all people aged 12 to 15, the crime rate is 36 percent higher than it was in 1973, Smith says. For 16- to 19-year-olds, the increase is 27 percent. Among people 35 years of age and older, on the other hand, the crime rate is down significantly.

``You get blips of greater violence,'' says Jerome Miller, director of the Washington-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. He says that the statistics don't justify the public and political outcry over crime. ``This hysteria around crime is created,'' he says, attributing it partially to ``ad men'' working for pro-gun groups and journalists who feed on sensational crime stories.

Politicians do their part, too. With polls showing a public preoccupied with crime, the issue is in constant play politically.

But it would be a mistake to underplay the public's anxiety about crime, Blumstein cautions. For many older Americans, the comparisons go back further than the last 20 years - to when crime figures were indeed much lower. ``Our nation has changed importantly since the '50s, when lots of people, even in urban areas, used to keep their doors unlocked,'' Blumstein comments.

The response among policymakers should go beyond ``trivial sloganeering'' to target the most crime-prone part of the population, he adds.

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