The Burger gauntlet

How can Americans respond to their highest judge's resounding challenge that controlling crime is "as much a part of our national defense as the Pentagon budget"?

There are many specific steps of deterrence and rehabilitation to be considered in Chief Justice Burger's latest annual report to the American Bar Association, as can be seen from the excerpts elsewhere on this page.

But, to start with, Mr. Burger ought to be emulated by all his fellow citizens in drawing a line against the despairing acceptance of a crime-ridden nation. Last year a privately sponsored national survey found that society seems to have adapted to the situation "almost without being aware of how such accommodation affects the nation's well-being." This week, virtually as the chief justice spoke, there was news of New York authorities hampered in their efforts to enforce laws against sex offenses by public acceptance of commercialized sex.

Thus far and no farther is Mr. Burger's much-needed message. The magnitude of the problem is no reason to abdicate the struggle to roll back crime:

"Why do we show such indignation over alien terrorists and such tolerance for the domestic variety? Are we not hostages within the borders of our own self-styled enlightened, civilized country? Accurate figures on the cost of home burglar alarms, of three locks on each door -- and sadly, of handgun sales for householders -- are not available but they run into hundreds of millions of dollars. All this in a 'civilized', 'enlightened' society!"

Civil rights advocates have been quick to question some Burger prescriptions as threatening the rights of the accused or the presumption of innocence. Some note the risk when any judge, let alone a chief justice, takes positions on controversial legal matters that might come before him on the bench.

But Mr. Burger plainly states that the war on crime will not be won by "abandoning the historic guarantees of the Bill of Rights." He adds the reminder that these rights apply to all: "A government that fails to protect both the rights of accused persons and also all other people has failed in its mission."

As for judicial objectivity, no judge ought to allow his opinions, whether stated or unstated, to interfere with judging a given case on its merits. We trust Mr. Burger would disqualify himself if ever he could not do so.

Indeed, for him to open himself to criticism in this way suggests just how deeply important he must consider it to give the public and the legal system a jolt. It fits in with Attorney General Smith's "top priority" of fighting violent crime, "within the limited area where the federal government ought to become involved." Such concern in high places should help establish a tone of resolve not to accommodate crime but to enforce the law with the fullness and fairness that make it effective and secure. As Churchill said, "The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of any country."

What Mr. Burger proposes would be costly -- from upgrading prisons to providing resources for speedy trials. He recognizes that solutions reach to integrity in the schools, attitudes toward drugs, and the factor of poverty. Nothing less than scrutiny of the whole society is required to get at the whys and wherefores of the situation that has insidiously developed. But, in the chief justice's words, "we must try to deter and try to cure."

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