America's criminal record

I can't think of anybody whose support I would rather have on my side than the chief justice. Here I had hardly finished a column declaring "I sense a new protest now rising against crimes of violence in America" (Jan. 9) when Chief Justice Burger told the American Bar Association that America is approaching a situation where its "capability of maintaining elementary security on the streets, in schools, and for the homes of our people is in doubt." Mr. Burger's evidence carries somewhat more weight than mine. Maybe it is time for another crime commission after all.

The American record of criminal violence is shameful. It goes back a long time.We are approaching the status of an "impotent society," says Mr. Burger; we give more safeguards "to those accused of crime than any other nation of all history," but at the same time we don't protect the public from the perpetrators of crime and the "day-by-day terrorism in almost any large city." He says that "more than one-quarter of all the households in this country are victimized by some kind of criminal activity at least once a year." The witness for this startling evidence is the chief justice of the United States.

When I was a youth I came home from two years in England and couldn't adjust myself to the casual acceptance of criminal violence. I have an old brown copybook with the headline "The Case for Quicker Justice" pasted on the cover with articles that I wrote in this paper, July 9-19, 1928. What a long time ago. I said the British homicide rate was only one- fifteenth the American, and that Detroit had 327 murders while Windsor, Canada, lying beside it, had none. Chief Justice Burger told the ABA the other day that Washington, D.C., had more criminal homicides in 1980 than Sweden and Denmark combined; that New York City with the same population as Sweden had 20 times as many homicides, and that the US had 100 times the rate of burglary of Japan. It's the same old story 50 years later. This is a "civilized," "enlightened" society, exclaimed the chief justice in anger.

Mr. Burger isn't the first statesman to denounce the high American crime rate and the conditions that bring it about. Woodrow Wilson called it "nothing less than shocking." (I used that quotation in 1928.) William Howard Taft called it a "disgrace"; President Hoover when he came to office assailed the "intricate and involved rules of procedure [that] have become the refuge of both big and little criminals." He continued:

"I am wondering whether the time has not come. . .to realize that we are confronted with a national necessity of the first degree, that we are not suffering from an ephemeral crime wave but from a subsidence of our foundations."

It sounds modern, doesn't it? Hoover was burdened, of course, by the dry law. But, long after prohibition had ended, the scandal of lawless ness continued: Lyndon Johnson named Dr. Milton Eisenhower to head his Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. In a superb introduction the commission wrote, "A growing number of our citizens have found that they need not stand idle while our cities rot, people live in fear, householders build individual fortresses, and human and financial resources flow to less urgent endeavors." That was 1969 and the commission put emphasis on poverty, which is certainly one cause of violent crime but only one. "The crime rate today exceeds our crime rate during the Great Depression," Justice Burger says. (Note, too, that each of four modern crime commissions urges stricter handgun control.)

"A far greater factor [than poverty in crime] is the deterrent effect of swift and certain consequences: swift arrest, prompt trial, certain penalty and, at some point, finality of judgment."

Make note of it, President Reagan . . . Justice Burger is only the latest deplore the scandal: there is something ominous in our national experience, but the condition need not continue.We need a new study, the chief justice thinks -- "a damage control program," as he puts it. People are afraid in parks, subways, streets, yes, their homes. Presidential surveys have pointed out the causes in the past; the problem is to get action after the report. The grievous condition remains and it is dangerous to pretend that it will cure itself.

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