FIGURES from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Justice Statistics give conflicting pictures of long-term trends in the US crime rate, but public opinion shows no such ambiguity. Violent crime is a widespread and persistent concern, especially among city dwellers and blacks. A majority of Americans say violent crime in their community is a worse problem than it was 10 years ago. One in five claim to have been the victim of a violent crime at some time in their lives; the figure is 29 percent among blacks. Four in 10 Americans say there is an area within a mile of their home where they are afraid to walk at night.
The system of justice is seen as ineffective in coping with crime. Of those who have been the victim of a violent crime during the past four years, only 15 percent said that they reported the crime and an arrest was made. Nearly three-quarters of the public say they have ``not very much'' confidence in the ability of the courts to convict and properly sentence criminals. The police get better grades than other actors in the criminal justice system. By nearly two-to-one the police are rated excellent or good rather than fair or poor at accomplishing their part of the criminal justice mission. At the other extreme, parole boards rate 22 percent excellent or good, 57 percent fair or poor.
Americans react to crime as they typically do when confronted with a complex and deeply felt problem: They say, ``Do something.'' They want the courts to be tougher. But public response is hardly ideological. Strong majorities support both the death penalty (a conservative solution) and gun control (a liberal solution). Americans are groping for an expression of their concern about crime and of their desire to take some sort of action.