America is engaged in a $26 billion-a-year battle against violent crime. And losing.
That's the situation according to Tom Wicker, narrator and coauthor of the ''Capital Cities Special Report: America's Battle With Crime'' (syndicated nationally from Sunday, March 7, 8-9 p.m., through Sunday, March 21, check local listings for day and time, since regional stations may schedule it as they wish). Mr. Wicker is a regular columnist for the New York Times and an associate editor there.
Experts estimate that there is only one person arrested for every five crimes committed, and less than half of those arrested are actually convicted of the original charge. According to Mr. Wicker and coauthors Kerry Herman and Christopher Jeans (who also served as producer-director), ''Young people no longer fear the criminal justice system or are deterred by it.''
In this solid, incisive documentary, Wicker manages to push the panic button even as he calms his audience. Included is a series of Newark courtroom sequences pinpointing the difficulties of providing trials for those accused of street crimes.
But then, in a sequence about the Belmont section of the Bronx, this special shows the other side of the coin. In an area close to some of the worst urban blight in the country, this community has managed to preserve a way of life that focuses on family, school, and church -- and, in doing so, has helped prevent street crime.
While this thorough special shows little that is totally new, it has correlated the facts so fascinatingly that what seems to be isolated bits of information snap together to reveal the common thread of increasing street crime.
In response to an expert who insists that what matters is the kind of ''togetherness'' found in Belmont, Mr. Wicker responds: ''But the problem may be that family, school, church, community are all too often weakened in modern America by technological developments, shifting social values, evolving race, sex, and class relations -- even new ways we house, educate, employ, and tax ourselves.''
According to Tom Wicker, ''Understanding that process of change may bring us closer to understanding crime in America.''
''America's Battle With Crime,'' is an honest show which offers no easy solutions. In its own quiet way, however, it manages to contribute a great deal to a solution by placing in perspective the facts that must be absorbed en route to understanding.