WASHINGTON – The nation's crime rates remain near historic lows,but violent crime is on the rise for the first time in more than a decade,officials reported at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
Despite Senior Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General Mark Epley's emphasis on the overall stability of the nation's low crime rates,committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Biden,D-Del.,disapproved of the Department of Justice's “complacent” approach to preventing and responding to violent crime.
In 2005,the most recent year for which federal statistics are available,murders rose 3.4 percent and other violent crimes rose 2.3 percent. But in some cities over the past two years,according to statistics Biden quoted,murders have gone up between 10 percent and 20 percent.
Biden said that even a slight increase in the crime rate demands federal attention.
After Congress passed “the most sweeping anti-crime bill in our history” in 1994 and created the Community Oriented Policing Services Program,Biden said the violent crime rate fell 26 percent over eight years. COPS provided grants to state and local law enforcement agencies to hire and train community policing professionals.
With reduced federal funding for programs like COPS,however,Biden said there is a clear correlation between violent crime rates and the number of police officers in a community.
“It's not rocket science,” he said. “We increase cops,and violent crime goes down. … The idea that we're going to reduce violent crime without additional police officers or resources is totally counterintuitive.”
Current data do not reveal nationwide crime trends,Epley said. Instead,they reveal increases in certain localities. The Northeast,for instance,experienced about a 5 percent increase in the murder rate in 2005,while the South experienced about a 2 percent increase,according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.
After visiting and gathering information from 18 “regionally distributed communities,” including Atlanta,Boston,Columbus,Ohio,and San Diego,the Department of Justice identified common themes for the crime trends in the targeted communities.
“They include the presence of loosely organized local gangs or street crews,the prevalence of guns in the hands of criminals and the level of violence among youth,” Epley said.
Epley did not have the full list at the hearing,and Biden joked that the department must have visited mostly low-crime areas.
The Department,which released the list after the hearing,did not analyze such large cities as New York,Los Angeles,Chicago or Washington.
Not only did Biden attribute low crime rates to a large police force,he also cited increased federal resources as a source of reduced rates of violent crime. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,he said,the government has been less focused on combating street crime.
“The administration has understandably dedicated vast federal resources to counterterrorism,but it has done so at the expense of law enforcement; our communities are suffering the consequences,” Biden said.
Other witnesses proclaimed their commitment to preventing violent crime,especially acts committed by juveniles.
“You have to make sure these juveniles are locked up for a long time,” Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer said. “These kids aren't afraid to shoot guns. … You have to scare them straight.”
James Alan Fox,a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston,focused more on prevention.
“We took the frills – drama,music,sports – out of school curriculum,” he said. “But those things were critical for kids' self-esteem,maintaining some attachment to school and being a balanced individual.”
Crime prevention starts at the basics,Fox said. Increasing early childhood education and after-school programs contribute to a reduction in crime,which,Fox said,most often occurs between the time a child returns home from school and when he or she goes to sleep.
“We don't want kids hanging out in the neighborhoods and not going to school,” Fox said. “For both short-term and long-term reasons,bringing a broader curriculum back serves a lot of purposes.”
Still,the problem of violent crime in America goes beyond this committee hearing,Palmer said. He attributed the increasing rate of violence to poverty and racism.
“Before I was mayor,I was African American,” Palmer said. “And after I'm mayor,I'll still be African American,and to see so many African Americans,Latinos and poor people breaks my heart.”
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We need a new vision for America that says we are brothers and sisters.”