FREDA ADLER has serious reservations about ``three strikes and you're out,'' a measure many states are adopting to put three-time violent felons behind bars for life.
But when the Rutgers University criminologist speaks on crime at public lectures, ``the audience fights me,'' she says. ``When I talk about three strikes and you're out, people say, why not two strikes?''
It's no wonder, then, that ``three strikes'' and other tough-on-crime measures are also provisions in the federal anticrime bill President Clinton hopes to sign soon. With the economy on the upswing, crime ranks consistently in polls as either the No. 1 or No. 2 concern of the American public. Research also shows that, over the past 20 years, the public has grown increasingly punitive in its attitudes toward crime.
``If you probe further, people will agree that social conditions are bad and that we need prevention and rehabilitation, but their first reaction is, throw them in jail,'' says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. He also points out that in the late 1960s, the public was slightly against the death penalty; now, polls show 75 to 80 percent of the public in favor.
Mr. Clinton and the Democrats are fighting to save the $33 billion crime bill, which is being threatened by gun-ownership advocates who oppose a provision to ban 19 types of assault weapons. In the fall election campaign, many Capitol Hill Democrats are hoping to tout the crime bill as a major accomplishment of this Congress.
Some liberals are also critical of provisions to federalize more crimes, create about 60 new death-penalty categories, and put 100,000 more police on the streets, saying Clinton and Congress are pandering to the public's fear of crime even as the crime rate holds steady. But the fact remains that the public supports the crime bill in polls by about a two-thirds majority.
News media blamed for hype
Experts on public attitudes toward crime blame the news media, movies, television, and politicians for hyping the threat of crime, particularly to segments of the population that are actually seeing a decline in crime. The federal government's National Crime Victimization Survey says 1 in 4 households experience crime each year, down from 1 in 3 in 1975. The violent crime rate has held steady except for teen-agers and blacks.
So the fact that crime is now ranked the No. 1 problem, particularly by white, better-off suburbanites, reflects the lessening of other concerns, such as the economy and the cold war. Ironically, the communities most affected by crime - those in the inner-city - often don't rank crime as No. 1, because there are so many other pressing issues, such as jobs, health care, and housing, says Wesley Skogan, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Chicago.
In short, perception is everything. And even as the public endorses massive public spending on both crime prevention and punishment, people are also voting with their pocketbooks and investing ever-greater sums in safety measures, such as burglar alarms, private security services, and gated communities. Others are taking self-defense lessons, arming themselves with substances like mace, or joining neighborhood watch groups. Gun sales are booming, reports the National Rifle Association, though mainly because of fear that gun sales will be banned.
Perception of threat
``As the perception of crime increases, people want to take [safety] into their own hands,'' says Linda Gimbel, spokeswoman for the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA), pointing out that the burglary rate has declined.
As the average price of a security system has declined by 30 percent in the last five years, home-security systems have proliferated by almost 40 percent, the NBFAA reports.
On a broader scale, spending nationwide by both individuals and businesses on ``private security products and services'' is roughly 70 percent higher than public spending on all federal, state, and local law enforcement, according to the research firm Hallcrest Systems, Inc., in McLean, Va. The private industry employs more than 2 1/2 times as many people as public law enforcement, Hallcrest also reports.
``The fact is, security is a peace of mind issue,'' says Albert Janjigian, a security expert with STAT Resources in Brookline, Mass. He blames the media, and also the rise in particular types of crime, such as carjacking and home invasions, which make for sensational media coverage.
Home invasions, in which a criminal or gang breaks into a home while the inhabitants are there, represent a small percentage of total crime, but the total is virtually doubling every year, says Mr. Janjigian.