THE American criminal-justice system is bursting at the seams. Court dockets are jammed. Prisons nationwide are severely overcrowded. And parole and probation programs are under strain. Yet, despite the apparent logjams, America is proceeding full throttle with an all-out crackdown on crime and criminals. It is aimed in part at sending a clear message to street thugs, swindlers, and potential crooks of all persuasions that the lenient treatment of the 1960s and '70s has been replaced with a get-tough national attitude.
``People are just tired of crime stories and criminals, and they have no more patience. They want criminals locked up and put away and kept away,'' says Prof. Laurin A. Wollin of Florida State University.
Indeed, criminals are being locked up at a steadily increasing rate. By last year more than 1.5 percent of the entire adult population of the United States was under ``correctional supervision.'' The US prison population has swelled to an all-time high, with more than 500,000 persons now behind bars. Crime rates decline
According to a recent report by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, crimes committed in the US are at the lowest level since the bureau began compiling numbers in 1973. Similarly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation says that reported crimes (only about 1 of every 3 crimes committed) are back down to levels of a decade ago, after having risen significantly between 1979 and 1982.
Criminologists offer a number of explanations for the improvement in crime-rate data. One is demographic: They say the baby-boomers are beyond the age of highest criminal activity and the baby-boomers' children are still too young. Yet most also agree that the crackdown on crime is having a positive effect. Locking up large numbers of serious offenders prevents them, at least temporarily, from committing more crimes.
But many criminal-justice specialists say that, while stricter law enforcement is helping, it is not the only answer to America's crime problem. They stress that a significant reduction in the continuing large volume of crime in the US will not come about until policymakers and criminologists push further in exploring the basic causes of crime with an eye toward preventing young Americans from becoming criminals in the first place.
``More and more people are going to prison, but it is also the case that more and more people are committing crimes,'' says Prof. James Q. Wilson of Harvard University.
Roughly 35 million crimes, including 19,000 murders, were committed in the US last year, according to the Justice Department's National Crime Survey and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report. The US crime rate exceeds those of all other industrialized nations.
``We have increased police, more prosecutions, tougher prison sanctions, but where is the payoff, where is the benefit? Do people feel safer now than in the past?'' asks James Austin of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
``What we need to do is strengthen the family, strengthen community life, increase work opportunities for all segments of society,'' Mr. Austin says. ``If we do that, then it would follow that crime rates would fall off and we would not have to rely so much on state control mechanisms to stop crime.''
Marvin Wolfgang of the University of Pennsylvania agrees that the US is relying too heavily on punitive measures to fight crime and not enough on preventive programs. He uses the metaphor of a steep, winding, dangerous mountain road to illustrate the potential life paths of crime-prone individuals. ``We have more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff than we have guardrails along the road,'' Professor Wolfgang says.
Such ``guardrails,'' according to criminologists, could include improved education, job training, and work opportunities for people living in depressed, high-crime neighborhoods. Hot-lunch programs, child-care centers, counseling services, pre-natal care, and neighborhood revitalization projects could also play a role in reducing crime by helping disadvantaged Americans gain a foothold in mainstream US society.
Researchers have found that children who participate in the federal Head Start programs are less likely to engage in criminal activity than other children with backgrounds of similar disadvantage and abuse. Head Start is designed to improve the quality of life of severely disadvantaged children through a regimen of hot meals, intensive educational programs, and other services.
The opportunity to earn a steady income, gain reponsibility, and eventually build a career is viewed as a far more powerful incentive for crime-prone people to remain law-abiding than the threat of going to prison. If people do not feel they are a part of society, they are unlikely to feel an obligation to respect its rules and laws, criminologists say. Breaking the cycle of crime
``If you are a black or Hispanic male, 16 or 17 years old, functionally illiterate and on drugs, you have no obvious means to achieve a middle-class standard of living unless you make some major changes in your life or unless you turn to crime,'' Austin says.
Houston police chief Lee P. Brown says, ``We are going to have to come to the realization that there is a correlation -- either direct or indirect -- between socioeconomic problems and the crime problem in our society. We have to look at what is occurring in our cities. Where there is a cycle of what people are calling an underclass, we have to be concerned about breaking that cycle.''
In the 1960s, popular theories about crime portrayed criminals as victims of an uncaring society. Much of the focus of criminologists was on the purported causes of criminal behavior and how criminals were forced into lives of crime as a result of oppressive circumstances or surroundings.
Today, those ideas have largely been rejected by an American public that has grown tired of being repeatedly victimized by criminals -- including children -- who appear to ride a revolving door of justice without consequence.
``We went through this period of the '60s and '70s where everybody's behavior was mitigated because they were poor, or because they didn't have good schooling, or came from broken homes. Today, there is a lot more accountability,'' says James K. Stewart, director of the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice.
``There has been a renewed emphasis on an individual being responsible for his own actions,'' notes Joe Bessette, deputy director of the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In the current climate of the US criminal-justice system, ``accountability'' and ``responsibility'' mean the same thing for serious offenders -- longer prison terms and reduced chances of early parole.
``Nobody believes in rehabilitation anymore,'' says Prof. Wesley Skogan of Northwestern University. ``People have taken a view that prison and corrections and sentencing should protect society rather than help offenders,'' he says. Citizen efforts to reclaim streets
Protecting society from crime has become a multibillion-dollar business in recent years. American citizens and businessmen spent $51 billion last year for private anticrime measures such as alarms, protective iron window bars, security guards, and video cameras. Seven percent of American homes are now equipped with burglar alarms.
But at the same time, more Americans are refusing to lock themselves behind double-bolt doors at dusk and relinquish the neighborhood to street thugs and burglars. Some 19 million neighborhood residents are now active in ``neighborhood watch'' and other community-based anticrime programs. There are more than 2,000 such organizations nationwide.
``Crime is not a fact of life -- you don't have to accept it,'' says Jean O'Neil of the National Crime Prevention Council. The council, which runs the McGruff ``Take a Bite Out of Crime'' advertising campaign, is in the forefront of a nationwide movement of neighborhood residents who are fed up with crime and who are banding together to reclaim their neighborhoods from criminals.
``We will not tolerate burglary. We will not tolerate people being afraid to walk outside after dark,'' Ms. O'Neil says.
In addition to fostering an enhanced sense of community, neighborhood watch groups have ushered in a new era of police-citizen partnership in neighborhood crime fighting. ``We think this sense of community and of police cooperation at the local level is the most promising development in crime prevention in the last 20 years,'' says Leonard Sipes, information director at the National Crime Prevention Council.
In Houston, Chief Brown has reorganized his department to carry out a strategy of ``neighborhood-oriented policing.'' Similar programs are under way in Baltimore, Santa Ana, Calif., and Detroit.
``It is nothing different than what we used to hear of the old cop on the beat,'' Brown explains. ``The cop on the beat was able to maintain order because he was a partner in the community. That, essentially, is what we are doing.'' Reducing the fear of crime
The chief says the overriding benefit of the new strategy is that it sharply reduces city residents' fear of crime. That, in turn, helps reverse the decline and deterioration of neighborhoods. ``If you have citizens who are afraid to come out on the streets, you give up the streets to the criminals,'' he says.
Chief Brown, who has a doctorate in criminology, says that, despite the new ideas being used by police, there remains much to be done in developing a national crime-prevention strategy to confront the conditions that breed alienation, frustration, and poverty in American inner cities.
He says, ``I think what we have seen is a reaction to crime where we attempt to address it through things like burglar bars, or alarm systems. . . . What we have done is reacted with stiff legislation and bigger prisons. What we have not done is to start looking at some of the causes of the problem and then doing what is necessary to address those causes.''
The stakes remain high. Prof. Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University says: ``If we don't deal with this in longer-range terms, we are going to have a lot more criminals 15 and 20 years from now, and the problem is going to be a lot worse.''