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Businessweek Archives

Taking Back America's Streets



To a nation numbed by ever-worsening statistics on crime, additional numbers can hardly be expected to produce much surprise. But a fresh analysis by

BUSINESS WEEK offers two shocking new figures. First, the economic cost of crime is $425 billion a year. This reinforces our despair. Second, the entire country spends only $35 billion on police protection annually--less than the outlay for soda pop. This suggests the possibility of a solution.

Despite the rhetoric of the past, the battle against crime--both the stick of punishment and the carrot of social programs--is startlingly underfunded. Worse, much of the money is misspent. But a rejiggering of the priorities and an increase in funds for prevention, instead of prison, could make the streets safer and could save individuals, businesses, and the government a fortune (page 72).

This is good news for a nation haunted by the crime epidemic. Last year, 14 million crimes were reported to the police. The Justice Dept. estimates that Americans report only one-third of all incidents. So about 40 million crimes were probably committed--in a country of 250 million people. That is a staggering total, and it highlights a disturbing possibility: America would rather live with crime than fight it.

With his usual flair for provocative comment, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said just that in a recent essay in The American Scholar. He argued that people were becoming more likely to describe deviant behavior, indeed criminal behavior, as normal. The result is that a level of violence unacceptable to Europeans, Asians--and our parents--is now the norm in Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington.

What is to be done? First, make crime pay less. Certainty of punishment is critical. The most efficient way is to put more police on the streets. "Community policing" is the hot new term for walking a beat. This back-to-basics tactic is proving effective--and far cheaper than incarceration, which costs a bundle.

The problem is, the country doesn't have enough cops walking the beat. Despite the billions spent on prisons in the 1980s, the number of police per 10,000 people barely kept pace with the population, even as violent crime soared. Even then, only half of all officers are in the field at any one time. Simply hiring more clerks to replace deskbound cops would be an effective way to get police on the street quickly.

Revamping the juvenile-justice system is a second step in raising the likelihood of punishment. Young offenders usually get no sentence--or a very light one--for their first three or four felonies. The lesson: Crime pays.

Punishment is not enough. Clear incentives are needed for young people to enter the world of work and not the criminal economy. That means job training and education. Prison costs $27,000 a year, vs. $22,000 for a slot in the Job Corps.

Intensive training and education programs have proved they can sharply reduce the crime rate. About 650,000 juveniles were arrested for violent crime in 1992. It would cost $15 billion to enroll them all in the Job Corps--probably a fraction of the cost of their crimes.

After years of impotent rage, America appears poised to fight the scourge of crime. Passage of a five-year, $22 billion anticrime bill by the Senate and the handgun bill named after James Brady are good first steps. Liberals, who once viewed anticrime measures as veiled racism, are now joining the battle.

President Clinton's Nov. 13 speech in Memphis emphasized personal responsibility and family stability. It is now up to the country to provide the incentives to build both.

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