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Keeping Cool About Crime

May 10, 1987

Elliot Currie writes in his review of my book "Crimewarps: The Future of Crime in America" (The Book Review, April 5) that the violent crime rate is on the rise in Los Angeles and Oakland, but whether these increases are real or artifacts of reporting won't be known until the National Crime Survey (NCS) publishes its next victimization studies, which are based on reported and unreported crime. Preliminary results for 1986 show continuing decreases in overall crime rates.

I grant that the increase in murders (which the NCS does not track) is real. In many cases, the increases in crime have taken place in urban centers that have experienced a large growth in population, both legal and illegal. However, an increase in volume is not necessarily an increase in rate. The rises to which Currie refers have taken place in the last year or so, after a 13-year period in which crime first leveled off and then dropped--precipitously, in some cases. In any case, one year's increase does not a crime trend make--and my concern is with long-term trends. The overall trend in America is clearly downward.

The increases Currie cites are highly localized and concentrated among drug users and drug dealers. It is true that innocent bystanders do sometimes get caught in the cross fire. But this is not the norm. Citing crime increases without putting them in this context adds to the public's panic about crime without helping people to realistically assess their own chances of being a crime victim. In "Crimewarps," I try to put the fear-inducing abuse of statistics into perspective. The fact is that crime is not evenly distributed. Some people--blacks, men, young people and the poor--have much higher odds of being victimized than others. The high-risk victim is the one on whom we should concentrate the bulk of our resources.

Currie also takes issue with my observations on the significance of the decline in use of almost all drugs that has been taking place since 1977. He seems to feel the current cocaine fad invalidates this trend. It is true that the percentage of those who have "ever used" cocaine has shown a steady rise across the board. However, among those ages 12-25, overall experimentation has tapered off since 1977. It is only among adults age 26 and older that use has about doubled to 4.2% since the late 1970s. Despite the increase, this age group remains the least active drug-using group.

The seriousness of our drug problem, however, ought not to be measured only in rates of illegal usage. Drug-related deaths and injuries are equally important indicators. Since 1982, cocaine-related emergency-room visits have more than tripled--not because so many new drug users are doing cocaine, but because more existing users have become addicted. The cocaine-addiction process takes about five years. Therefore, we are only now feeling the ravages of the peak usage of 1979. In addition, cocaine health emergencies have been compounded by the advent of "crack," which is more potent and more rapidly addictive than snorted cocaine. Crack users are not necessarily a new population of drug abusers. Studies indicate that they have been using cocaine or other drugs all along and have simply followed the fad and switched to crack.

Currie and I agree on the need to think seriously about the wisdom of Big Brother-ish measures like using surgically implanted tracking devices to monitor convicts. However, as I report in "Crimewarps," we are already at the beginning stages of this form of "imprisonment." Finally, I agree that we must make "tough and better-informed decisions about our economic and social priorities." Indeed, I hope that "Crimewarps," as both a cautionary and analytic tract, has contributed to that process.


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