A Shock To The System

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A specter is haunting Europe — crime. Voters are mad as hell about it, and they've made it clear to their elected officals that they're not going to take it anymore. It was disgust with insécurité that helped sweep rightists to power in France last June. In Germany, a spate of lurid sex crimes against children provoked Chancellor Gerhard Schroder to say "Lock them away — forever." Anger at juvenile thugs has Italian authorities weighing whether to send 16- and 17-year-old convicts to adult prisons. And last week, the British government, which has already passed 11 crime bills and launched nearly a hundred crime-fighting initiatives in the past five years, introduced a criminal-justice overhaul it described as "radical," full of controversial measures to squeeze more convictions out of the courts and more miscreants into prison. Civil libertarians railed against measures that diluted defendants' rights, but the government was unapologetic. "Yes, the system is failing," said Home Secretary David Blunkett — and he's the man in charge of it.

Herein lies a paradox, or maybe it's just politics: people are up in arms about crime, but actual crime rates are mostly falling or stable. Statisticians see only a vague correlation between changes in actual crime and the level of public agitation about it. In Britain, for example, the "failing system" has produced a drop in violent crime of 22% since 1997. In Hamburg, the murder rate dropped 45% between 1993 and 2001 and robbery dropped 11% between 2000 and 2001, yet in September 2001 public disgust with crime swept to office a new hard-line Interior Minister, Ronald Schill, nicknamed "Judge Merciless." He has advocated the castration of persistent sex offenders and approved the use of forced emetics on drug dealers in Hamburg to recover swallowed evidence.

It's true that Europe is a more dangerous and violent place than a generation ago: between 1975 and 2000, crime rose 97% in France, 145% in England, 410% in Spain. But why, when in the last decade crime has stabilized or dropped in many countries, has it now become such a big issue? Here we enter the fickle zone of mass psychology, where inflammatory headlines and neighborhood gossip can cause anxiety wholly out of sync with a person's true chance of becoming a victim. Blunkett acknowledged as much when he said that the hard-won drop in crime under his Labour government "means nothing if it is not felt on the ground." He might have added, "where people cast their ballots" — because cutting crime (which is immensely hard) and managing people's perceptions of it (easier, though no cakewalk) have become the central preoccupations of some of Europe's top politicians.

Take Nicolas Sarkozy, who revels in his Robocop image as France's new Interior Minister. During the campaign he played expertly on public disgust with crime, which was spurred by a 20% rise in criminal activity between 1997 and mid-2002, especially among young people. Critics found anti-immigrant overtones in his appeals, but he tapped into a wellspring of anger that the ruling Socialist government had too casually dismissed. "We mustn't scorn those who suffer daily insecurity by accusing them of having become authoritarian and intolerant," Sarkozy said earlier this month, trashing the left as out of touch with grassroots France. "Let's stop excusing everything in an attempt to explain everything, including things that are inexcusable and inexplicable."

Sarkozy has redeployed uniformed cops to where they will be most visible — mostly to where relatively affluent city-dwellers live — and staged a series of well-publicized operations in poor neighborhoods, where voters are few. In October he presented a vast new crime bill that promises to fund another 18,000 police and 10,000 Justice Ministry posts, mostly judges and officials to speed up court cases. Cops and security guards will be given new powers to search individuals, packages and cars — not just for terror-related reasons as they already can, but to catch any type of criminal. dna samples will be taken not only from convicted sex offenders, but anyone whose criminal record or behavior suggests a capacity to commit "heinous crimes" in the future.

Critics call this liberticide, and deride his plan to ban "aggressive" begging and punish itinerant groups who camp on abandoned public lands as an attempt to criminalize those who are merely unfortunate or unpopular. But many of his initiatives build on measures Socialists had already introduced, and Sarkozy clearly enjoys his politically incorrect image. Referring to a recent string of unsolved murders, Sarkozy told Le Monde, "I don't have enough bravery to tell [the victims' families] that our [DNA] files contain the genetic fingerprints of just 1,000 criminals, while in Britain they've got over 1.6 million. Being more efficient in finding guilty people, and preventing future tragedies, seems to me more useful than screaming about the threat to our civil liberties."

Whatever ancient freedoms he may be trampling, Sarkozy is now riding a wave of good stats. His ministry reported a 5% drop in crime last month over the same period a year ago. Even better in some ways, the public is feeling more secure: a September poll showed a 10% drop (to 46%) in the number of Parisians who say they worry about crime "often" or "occasionally."

Across the Channel, with his government in midstream, Blunkett faces a more subtle problem of perception management. Crime rates are generally down, but in the last year some high-visibility offenses, such as muggings, appear to have risen. To be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" was a bedrock New Labour pledge — but an ICM poll in September found that 74% of Britons feel it has not been kept.

So it was no surprise when Queen Elizabeth included in her speech opening Parliament two weeks ago the news that her government would seek to "reform and rebalance the criminal-justice system to deliver justice for all and safeguard the interests of victims, witnesses and communities." The words were New Labourspeak, but the bill Blunkett introduced shows a confidence in state power more in keeping with one of the Queen's early forebears. The "double jeopardy" rule prohibiting prosecutors from trying the same person twice for the same offense is to end for 30 categories of crime. Police will be able to detain people without charge for 36 hours instead of 24. The magistrates who handle low-level criminal cases will be entrusted with many more, and empowered to give longer sentences. Juries will be scuttled in complex fraud cases. And information about a defendant's "bad character" will now be revealed to the jury — including both prior convictions and other misconduct never proved in a court — which detractors say will encourage police to round up the usual suspects and trust the jury will be swayed by a smear on whatever defendant they pick.

Critics are fulminating, and seeking allies in the House of Lords to force amendments. Roger Bingham, communications director for Liberty, a human-rights advocacy group, says "there are lots of things you can do for the victims of crime that do not involve making it easier to lock up the wrong people" — a problem highlighted last month with the release after 25 years in prison of Robert Brown, who was allegedly framed by corrupt police officers for a murder he did not commit. Since 1997, the Court of Appeals has quashed as wrongful 75 out of 114 convictions presented by a panel charged with redressing miscarriages of justice. "We're all for greater efficiency," says Peter Rook, head of the Criminal Bar Association, "but this is not an assembly line. There is a defendant whose liberty is at stake."

Since over 90% of people who make it to a trial are found guilty, Bingham argues that crime fighting should focus instead on the four million crimes each year for which no arrest is made. "That's what's blighting people's neighborhoods," he says. Virtually all sides in British politics agree there's a good case for more police — in New York, there are seven crimes for each cop, compared to 41 for each London bobby. Blunkett is planning to add another 2,500 officers nationwide — a 2% rise. But a really big increase would cost actual money instead of "talking tough and reaching for the statute book," says Bingham.

Blunkett's bill does contain innovations the left has praised. Short stays in prison will be replaced wholesale with community-based sentences like electronic tagging, once enough probation officers can be found to supervise. The bill will expand and simplify a bevy of programs and court orders to identify repeat offenders, and direct them into counseling, drug treatment, education and close supervision — though many more places are needed than will be funded. Blunkett also plans to borrow from New York's "zero tolerance" model to permit on-the-spot fines for "antisocial behavior" like dumping garbage on vacant lots or playing the lout on the way home from the pub.

Blunkett is not just talking tough, but acting tough too. He and Sarkozy both hope their reforms will grab enough headlines to reassure people about their safety. Despite the critics, they also think their reforms will work. If they don't, and crime rises, the worst charge they will be guilty of is giving the public what it wants.