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Rising Violent Crime in the US Sparks a Search for Answers


The FBI reports that violent crime in the United States went up last year after declining for more than a decade.

From the mid-1990s until recently, violent crime in the United States was on the wane. Whether that was the result, as many analysts have suggested, of more intensive policing, tougher jail sentences or even improved economic factors, the downturn brought a measure of relief to people in the nation's cities.

Crime Wave or a New Trend?

But FBI spokesman Paul Bresson says the latest report on violent crime could indicate that this more than a decade of declining crime may be over.

"In our uniform crime reports for 2005, there was a 2.5 percent increase overall in violent crime [which is defined as]: murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Regionally, the Midwest experienced the steepest increase, 5.7 percent. And, cities with 100,000 to 250,00 in population showed the greatest murder increase - - up 12.5 percent from 2004," says Bresson.

The FBI spokesman adds that in cities with population between 50,000 and 100,000, the murder rate was up nearly as high, at 12.4 percent.

But not all analysts say the new FBI crime statistics indicate crime is trending upward. One of them, David Muhlhausen at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, says he is taking a "wait and see" position for now.

"We really don't know what these new numbers mean yet. Because, when the final numbers [i.e., FBI crime statistics] for 2005 come out later this fall, they will be adjusted. So, the actual increase in crime may be smaller than what the numbers are currently showing," says Muhlhausen.

But another analyst, John Roman at the Urban Institute in Washington, takes a differing view. He says historical evidence suggests that the new statistics may indeed indicate that crime is resurging.

"Violent crime numbers in this country have been down. This is the first time that they have been up [in recent times]. And the question is, 'Is that the start of a trend? Or is it just a little blip on the radar?' If you look at the statistics over the last 40 years or so, there has only been one time where the changed direction didn't signal the beginning of a new trend," says Roman.

"Meth" and the Midwest

While they may be debate about the significance of the latest crime statistics, there is little doubt the mounting violence in the Midwest states and in smaller cities can be linked to the growing traffic in an illegal drug called methamphetamine, or "meth" for short. Unlike heroin and cocaine, which are made from raw materials not found in the United States, methamphetamine is created primarily from non-prescription medicines that are commonly sold in U.S. drugstores.

David Steingraber, vice president of a professional trade group called the National Criminal Justice Association, says he believes methamphetamine plays a central role in the upsurge in violent crime.

"I think the Midwest has been particularly hard hit by meth [methamphetamine]. Meth manifests itself in the sort of crimes that show up on the [FBI] crime statistics. Meth has certainly spawned a lot of interest on the part of gangs. And that, of course, stimulates gang activity and the violence and crime associated with that. So, I don't see any reason to doubt that it [methamphetamine] is a significant contributing factor [to the rise in crime] in the Midwest," says Steingraber.

Many law enforcement officials and analysts say that methamphetamine trafficking is now expanding from its original Midwestern base to the east and west coasts because so much money can be made from the drug. As a result, they say, drug-related crime will undoubtedly rise.

Dealing with an Upsurge

The violent crack trade of the late 1980s and early 1990s prompted the passage of federal and state "get tough" laws mandating minimum jail sentences for drug crimes, limits on parole from prison and other measures meant to ensure that offenders were removed from the streets. Those "get tough" laws have been credited as a factor in the mid-1990's downturn in violent crime, if for no other reason that many perpetrators were behind bars and not out on the streets.

But John Roman at the Urban Institute says that the apparent upsurge in violence brings those so-called get-tough laws into question. Unless a new approach is tried, he believes the violence will continue to increase.

"We've really moved away from any innovative strategies to find ways to keep people from committing crimes and keeping them out of prison. In the last five or six years, we've made virtually no investment in new policing [and] in new corrections policies [and] new community supervision policies. And if those are the choices we make as a society, chances are, in my opinion, we are going to see the consequences of those choices in terms of higher crime," says Roman.

Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the eastern state of Pennsylvania, blames more than the easy availability of methamphetamine for the rise in violent crime. He says a lack of jobs for young people and a drop in government funding for police are also responsible for the increase in crime, and he is not optimistic about a decrease any time soon.

"We're more likely to see things get worse rather than better. We're seeing a tougher job market for people at the age of transition out of teenaged crime. We're seeing a reduction in social services. In particular, we're seeing police budgets cut, so we're seeing less policing in the streets. So there are lots of reasons why one could anticipate that things are going to get worse," says Blumstein.

Blumstein and other analysts say that getting control of violent street crime depends on several factors. They say a way must be found to address the behaviors and needs of the age group most often engaged in violence, younger people in their teens and twenties. Along with these steps, they say police must make a greater effort to suppress the illegal drug trade and the proliferation of deadly weapons. But the analysts acknowledge that so long as there is lots of money to be made from illegal drugs, there will always those eager to take the risk to make that money.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.