Americans are anxious about crime. They are concerned about someone breaking into their car or home, and fearful of being robbed or assaulted on the street. These are not idle worries: The latest FBI crime statistics show violent crime up by 5 percent, murder up 7 percent and robbery up by 8 percent. Property crimes remained constant at the relatively high levels of previous years.
There are no simple explanations why violent crime is rising. One factor is the "bubble effect." Since most crimes are committed by young people, the crime rate goes up and down depending on the proportion of young people in the population. The past five years have seen the coming of age of large numbers of young people born in the 1960s. Though far smaller than the post-World War II baby boom, the mini-boom of the '60s produced a "bubble" of people now in the 15-to-27-year-old age group that traditionally commits most crimes.
In addition to more young people, the number of Americans living in poverty has also increased, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of all Americans. The disparity between rich and poor grew more troublesome during the '80s as the most populous group of poor shifted from elderly to the young. Meanwhile the decade saw a general weakening of family
structures due to more out-of-wedlock births, higher divorce rates and more parents working outside the home.
These developments are not so much "explanations" for rising crime as they are social facts associated with it. They do not tell us why any particular individual breaks the law, but they do provide a context for viewing a general rise in lawlessness. And they suggest that the "problem" of crime cannot be disassociated from other problems affecting society -- poverty, unemployment, unstable families. The woefully overburdened criminal justice system is only the most visible manifestation of far more widespread societal failures.
Getting tough with criminals has long been a Republican article of faith. Ironically, that could work to Democrats' advantage this year if they use the latest statistics to call Republicans to account for why crime is up during their watch. But partisan wrangling aside, the mere fact that crime continues to rise is sure to make it second only to the economy as an issue this election year.