Are the bad old days back? Read the headlines and you'd think so: "Violent Crime Blazing Back in America," reads one, "Big-city murders way up since '04" another.
The Police Executive Research Forum sees a "gathering storm" of violent crime, a "tipping point" in many cities. Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) intones: "After years of driving crime rates down, we're now in reverse gear."
There's something to all this: The FBI's Uniform Crime Report shows violent offenses up 1.3 percent last year, following a 2.3 percent rise in 2005. That's the first significant jump in years, following the astonishing crime reductions of the 1990s that leveled off in the early 2000s.
Skeptics say: this may just be a blip, that it would take a decade of such reversals to get us back to the roaring crime rates of the 1980s and early '90s.
But let's assume the recent rise is serious. What's happening? Lots of competing explanations get offered: Gang problems are now growing in smaller cities. Gun laws are loose and the politicos fear to stiffen them. Because we have the world's highest incarceration rate, rising numbers of inmates are being released from prisons- far too few rehabilitated, or able to land a job. The focus of America has shifted to homeland security - like a Cyclops who's shifted his eye to terror, watching airports and public buildings while giving short shrift to demonstrably effective community-oriented policing.
On top of all that, the federal government has cut back some $2 billion in Justice Department law enforcement programs such as the Clinton-era COPS program that helped local governments deploy an added 100,000 police officers.
Local officials' priority is renewed funding for the COPS program. My reaction: OK, more police resources help (especially if they're focused on community policing). But what else?
Arguably the biggest long-term payoff of all would result from turning back the clock on America's furious but failed "war on drugs," the trigger for a high share of all American crime today. Roughly 60 percent of convicts serve time related to drug peddling and addiction. "Prison is a place where someone headed down a path of destruction is propelled at 90 miles an hour," notes Barry Campbell, a former drug addict who now works at the Fortune Society, a Manhattan-based prison reform organization.
Everyone wants truly dangerous criminals behind bars - indeed for as long as possible. But our society is so prison-happy we'll add 192,000 more inmates by 2011, according to a projection by tge Pew Charitable Trusts. That would trigger roughly $12.5 billion in new prison construction and $15 billion in added operating costs.
There's surely a smarter way to use our public dollars. A study last year by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy showed that $1 spent imprisoning drug offenders produced 37¢ in crime reduction benefits; the same $1 spent to give offenders community-based drug treatment produced $18.52 in benefits.
How about prevention - investing early, systematically in kids and families? This is the issue all the alarming crime headlines, and quick political fixes, ignore. Poverty, broken families, poor education and significant crime are inextricably bundled. Early childhood nutrition, care and education can pay off hugely later. A 5 percent increase in male high school graduation rates, the Alliance for Excellent Education reports, would produce yearly savings of $5 billion in crime-related expenses - plus dramatically higher earnings and life prospects for the students.
What of the argument that we can't "afford" the depth of early childhood services that other advanced nations provide? A new study by the research and low-income advocacy group CFED notes that the federal government in 2005 spent $367 billion - that's a third of a trillion dollars - on direct outlays and tax breaks for home ownership, savings and investment, retirement accounts and small business development. But the benefits are wildly skewed. The average total benefit was $57,673 for the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers, a negligible $3 for the poorest fifth of the population.
Ray Boshara of the New America Foundation has a radically better idea: Establish an "American Stakeholder Account" for every child at birth - initial government deposit $6,000, plus eligibility for dollar-for-dollar matching funds for voluntary contributions up to $500 a year. Assuming modest but steady contributions, a young person might have $20,000 by age 18, for college tuition, a home, to start a business, or long-term savings.
What does such an idea have to do with crime? A lot, I'd think - building a mindset of hope, the best conceivable antidote to the lure of the streets, gangs and drug dependency. The ultimate benefits to the U.S. economy, in added wage-earners and taxpayers, and fewer mired in lives of desperation, could be immense. America's surest road to a safer society is what we always claimed to be the best at - building opportunity.