Late in 1969, a presidential commission surveyed statistics on violent crime in the turbulent 1960s and warned that new policies were needed to save American cities from "accelerating deterioration," with better-off residents living in "fortified cells" while slums became "places of terror."
Now, more than 15 years later, enough of this chilling scenario has come true to provide new and more urgent arguments for a shift in the nation's strategies for dealing with the root causes of crimes of violence, according to a new study made public Sunday by the Eisenhower Foundation, a non-public study group.
Rise in Crime Rates
The study found that there had been large net increases in the rates for such crimes as murder, assault, rape and robbery, despite a modest decline in the 1980s. While differences in record-keeping rule out direct comparisons, the report said, available statistics show that levels of criminal violence in the United States "either far exceed or are among the highest of nations most similar to it in culture and history."
In 1978, the last year for which comparative statistics were available, the U.S. homicide rate was 9.4 per 100,000--about eight times Britain's 1.2, nine times Canada's 1.0, 13 times Switzerland's 0.7 and nearly 19 times Denmark's 0.5.
Similarly, 191.2 of 100,000 Americans were robbed between 1970 and 1975, as against 64.9 in Canada, 21.4 in Britain, 12.8 in Denmark and 2 in Switzerland.
While it called continued improvement in the nation's criminal justice system essential, the report urgently recommended steps to encourage self-reliant inner-city neighborhood organizations that give residents "a stake in their own turf." It said they should link community crime prevention work with economic development, youth employment and extended family support systems.
The Eisenhower Foundation is a private-sector version of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the commission, headed by Milton S. Eisenhower, in 1967 in the wake of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Assessed Urban Riots
Its work overlapped that of two other groups, one the Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice created by Johnson in 1965 under the chairmanship of former Atty. Gen. Nicholas Katzenbach, the other the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, headed by former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, which was set up by Johnson in 1967 to assess the urban riots of the late 1960s.
Entitled "American Violence and Public Policy," the Eisenhower Foundation's 223-page report was prepared by 12 experts on crime and violence, half of whom served on one of the three Johnson-era commissions.
Elliott Currie, a research associate at UC Berkeley's Center for the Study of Law and Society and a former member of the original Eisenhower Commission, wrote that the commission's bleak vision of future U.S. cities was "true to such an extent that we now simply take most of it for granted.
50% Jump in Homicides
"In 1968, when the commission began its deliberations, the national homicide rate as measured in the (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports was 6.8 per 100,000," Currie wrote. "In 1981, there was much celebration in the media because the rate had fallen slightly--to 9.8--from 10.2 the year before." However, he wrote, "the jump between 1968 and 1980 amounted to exactly 50%."
There are as yet no reliable explanations, Currie wrote, for a modest decline in violent crime rates recorded since they peaked in 1980, but he questioned the argument that it resulted from tougher sentencing of offenders.
"It's certainly true," he said, "that we have locked up more offenders than ever before in recent years. But that trend began well before the fractional decline in violent crimes in the past two years and it coincided with the opposite trend--sharply rising criminal violence--in the late 1970s."
Since the 1970s, Currie said, the strategy most consistently used to attack crime has stressed increased incarceration, even though it "hasn't done much about crime." He recalled the Eisenhower Commission's recommendations that the nation simultaneously "double our investment" in the criminal justice system and "make progress in reconstructing human life," and observed that there had been more progress on the first point than the second.