Crime linked to social ills? President Reagan, sociologists at odds

Does poverty cause crime? Sociologists says "yes," and President Reagan isn't sure. Launching a major anticrime drive before the International Chiefs of Police in New Orleans Sept. 28, Mr. Reagan attributed high crime rates to "break down in the criminal justice system in America" and to declining moral values.

"It's obvious that prosperity doesn't decrease crime" he said, citing rises in crime rates parallel with rising living standards.

A Joint Economic Committee research team flatly estimated that a 1 percent increase in unemployment increases state prison admissions by 4 percent; sociologist Harvey Brenner found similar patterns in Canada, england, Wales, and Scotland. Another study made in Michigan in 1975 by sociologist Jack Nagel calculated that with full employment (often placed at 4 percent unemployment) instead of 13.8 percent unemployment, serious crimes in the state would have dropped 39 percent, or nearly 250,000.

The United States has had four major federal crime commissions in half a century, beginning with the Wickersham commission in 1931. In large part they have agreed. Recently the attorney general's Task Force on Violet Crime made its recommendations. The reports show the US as one of the most crime-ridden nations. For example a table of murders per 100,000 shows Japan 1.6; Britain 1. 3; West Germany 1.3; the US 9.7. Crimes of violence in the US, according to FBI comparative analysis in April, are up 13 percent over last year.

Chief Justice Warren Burger told the American Bar Association last February that "crime and the fear of crime have permeated the fabric of American life." He urged tougher law enforcement and declared, "Like it or not, today we are approaching the status of an impotent society -- whose capability of maintaining elementary security on the streets, in schools, and for the homes of the people is in doubt."

Reagan's speech at New Orleans indicated that his administration would fight crime by a hard-line approach of asking stiffer punishment and speed-up of justice. He scoffed at "social thinkers of the 1950s and 1960s who discussed crime only in the context of disadvantaged childhoods and poverty-stricken neighborhoods."

With the administration engaged in a belt-tightening budget operation, Reagan did not mention the principle recommendation of the attorney general's Task Force on Violent Crime for $2 billion in federal aid to help states rebuild overcrowded prison systems. The task force recommended closer control of the 60 million handguns estimated to be in circulation in the US. Reagan did not recommend control but backed the recommendation for mandatory prison terms for those who carry a gun while committing a felony.

Reagan urged sweeping revision of the criminal code. As an example, evidence now obtained by illegal means, like confessions compelled by "third degree" methods, is barred under the "exclusionary rule" upheld by the Supreme Court. Reagan asked modification of this rule, which he charged is being abused.

Reagan's vigorous speech got warm approval from the police chiefs and cool reception from the American Civil Liberties Union. The latter called the recommendations a "fraud in terms of being serious proposals to reduce crime." Editorials asked more information; "law-and-order rhetoric," said the Baltimore Sun; the New York Times hoped for more Federal funds.

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