Fear of Crime Spurs Public, Private Spending Sales of Home-Security Systems Are Up 40 Percent in Five Years

Article excerpt

FREDA ADLER has serious reservations about "three strikes and you're out," a measure many states are adopting to put three-time violent felons behind bars for life.

But when the Rutgers University criminologist speaks on crime at public lectures, "the audience fights me," she says. "When I talk about three strikes and you're out, people say, why not two strikes?"

It's no wonder, then, that "three strikes" and other tough-on-crime measures are also provisions in the federal anticrime bill President Clinton hopes to sign soon. With the economy on the upswing, crime ranks consistently in polls as either the No. 1 or No. 2 concern of the American public. Research also shows that, over the past 20 years, the public has grown increasingly punitive in its attitudes toward crime.

"If you probe further, people will agree that social conditions are bad and that we need prevention and rehabilitation, but their first reaction is, throw them in jail," says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. He also points out that in the late 1960s, the public was slightly against the death penalty; now, polls show 75 to 80 percent of the public in favor.

Mr. Clinton and the Democrats are fighting to save the $33 billion crime bill, which is being threatened by gun-ownership advocates who oppose a provision to ban 19 types of assault weapons. In the fall election campaign, many Capitol Hill Democrats are hoping to tout the crime bill as a major accomplishment of this Congress.

Some liberals are also critical of provisions to federalize more crimes, create about 60 new death-penalty categories, and put 100,000 more police on the streets, saying Clinton and Congress are pandering to the public's fear of crime even as the crime rate holds steady. But the fact remains that the public supports the crime bill in polls by about a two-thirds majority. News media blamed for hype

Experts on public attitudes toward crime blame the news media, movies, television, and politicians for hyping the threat of crime, particularly to segments of the population that are actually seeing a decline in crime. The federal government's National Crime Victimization Survey says 1 in 4 households experience crime each year, down from 1 in 3 in 1975. The violent crime rate has held steady except for teen-agers and blacks. …