Potshots at the crime rate

So far as I am concerned President Reagan's speech against crime last month was a flop. He made it before the International Association of Chiefs of Police in New Orleans who applauded warmly. They showed particular enthusiasm for a proposal to end the 77-year old judicially-created ''exclusionary rule'' under which a case can be thrown out for a law-enforcement error. Fine, if the courts will approve it. But studies by the General Accounting Office indicate that only about 2 percent of all evidence is thrown out for technical reasons, and a far smaller percentage of cases are thrown out altogether for the same reason.

On March 23 Time magazine ran a cover story with a horrendous picture ''The Curse of Violent Crime''. By a coincidence Newsweek ran a similar story the same day also showing a mean-looking revolver pointed right at you - ''The Epidemic of Violent Crime.'' US News and World Report had a cover story, Oct. 12 (another revolver), ''Our Losing Battle Against Crime''. It began to look like an anti-crime trend. I have covered half a dozen commissions investigating crime, ever since the original Wickersham Commission. And on Aug. 17, 1981, the attorney general's eight-member Task Force on Violent Crime submitted its final recommendations. Yes, it appeared that reform was looking up.

I do not know of anything on which an American can feel more embarrassment in talking with a European than on our crime rate. It simply is not comprehended abroad. Why do we allow it? They politely ask about it and then change the subject. In Canada in a recent year there were 52 handgun murders; England, Scotland, and Wales had 55; the United States 10,728. The FBI says all violent crime in the US rose 11 percent from 1979 to 1980. But when a timid Congress finally passes a law banning import of handguns it allows the parts to be imported. That way they are assembled here. And that is only a small part of the crime problem.

I thought the Reagan speech at New Orleans was disappointing. Most of his recommendations were based on those of the administration's task force, but he omitted the group's call for stronger controls of firearms, as well as the principal recommendation in the report - the immediate construction of new prisons launched by $2 billion in federal aid. They are desperately needed. Alas , the federal government is retrenching; let us balance the budget first and think about crime later is the attitude.

That is also the view of several of the states; they are cutting back on police to save money. There are about 440,000 law-enforcement officers all together over the country, organized in 17,000 units, up from a tiny sheriff office to the FBI itself. Many are overworked, understaffed, and now they face force reductions. Boston which had 2,500 officers in 1968 is down to 1,620. The situation in American prisons is particularly savage, nearly two-thirds confined in cells smaller than the 60 square feet recommended by experts as the minimum essential. It's unpleasant to read about it and that perhaps has produced a silence: ''Privacy is simply unavailable. . .Opportunities for violence and sexual abuse are largely uninhibited.''

Mr. Reagan's speech, as I say, ignored this principal recommendation of the task force set up by William French Smith, the attorney general. Mr. Reagan stressed many justifiable subjects of criticism - delays in court, technical flaws, coddling of criminals, over-lenient justices. These have been denounced for years, no doubt justifiably. But Mr. Reagan also made some statements that seem questionable. He minimized the effect of poverty on crime: ''It's obvious that prosperity doesn't decrease crime,'' he said and added, ''deprivation and want don't necessarily increase crime.''

Well, I disagree. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported, for example in 1975 , that since the 1950s the size of the federal prison population has been directly related to the national unemployment rate. Increases in one are accompanied by increases in the other. Mr. Reagan can see the tables if he wants to. Research by the Joint Economic Committee estimated that one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate increased state prison admissions by about 4 percent.

That's the latest report on the crime front. The nation's weeklies have reminded us again of the situation. Handguns are omnipresent in America and one of them nearly killed the President. (There are 10,000 dealers or pawnbrokers who sell them.) At the same time the attorney general's task force urges a big prison building program to relieve intolerable conditions and some judges are letting offenders out of the overflowing jails early rather than crowd them anymore.

Mr. Reagan in his crime speech declares in his summary that crime ''is a problem of the human heart'' and that we must ultimately recast ''our deep moral values.''

Who will deny that? Meanwhile the rate is increasing.

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