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Police and bureaucrats tell the public that crime is going down. But in every survey the public insists that crime is still the country's No. 1 problem, ahead of the economy, health care, poverty, everything.

The American public is a hysterical paranoid dolt, that's one explanation. The other is this:Much of the American public looks at the stories about crime decline, says, well, maybe for you, not me. No, it says - when I think where I live and walk, where my children go to school, when I look at the pushers, or read about kids with spray guns, my stomach says the danger is no less.

The public stomach is right. The truth remains that the basic crime rate - all property and violent crimes per 100,000 people - was 190 in 1960, 400 in 1970 and in the 1990s has been about 600.

So taking the softest, most generalized look at crime, pretending that blacks are not far more likely than whites to get killed or robbed, what do we get? A country where every person is three times more likely to be murdered, robbed or raped than just 30 years ago. This does not inspire grateful confidence.

The figures are from an important report presented last week to a conference at Princeton by Prof. John J. DiIulio Jr. of Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.

The public's anxiety is not simply based on statistics. DiIulio points to other reasons. Blacks, the most endangered Americans, know they cannot get protection whites can afford - doormen, gates, security guards.

In the cities, white Americans who fear crime are running out of locks and distance. And whatever their color, Americans know the justice system is not keeping dangerous criminals off the streets.

DiIulio says: "The justice system is a revolving door for convicted predatory street criminals, the vast majority of whom enter the system by plea-bargaining, exit it before serving even half of their time in confinement and make a cruel joke out of the terms of their `community-based supervision.' "

Some of his statistics:

Ninety percent of all criminal cases do not go to trial because the offender pleads guilty to a lesser charge.

"Most convicted criminals rarely see the inside of a prison." In 1989 three-quarters of all convicted criminals were on probation or on parole, not in cells. Within three years of sentencing, nearly half of all probationers had to be put behind bars again for a new crime - meaning a new victim - or had absconded.

Nationally, most prisoners are violent or repeat offenders, or both. Over 90 percent of all prisoners are held by states. In 1991, 94 percent of these had been convicted of a violent crime or had a previous sentence to probation or incarceration.

"In other words, only 6 percent of prisoners were nonviolent offenders with no prior sentence to probation or incarceration."

Nearly half were serving time for a violent crime and a third had been convicted in the past of one or more violent crimes. Only 1 percent had been sentenced in the past for minor offenses, such as drunkenness, vagrancy, disorderly conduct.

Of the 35,000 people admitted to federal prisons in 1991, about 2 percent, or 700, were convicted of mere drug possession. The same figure for state prisons was 7.5 percent.

How long do violent and repeat criminals serve? In 1991, 34 states released 326,000 prisoners, 90 percent on parole. Including murderers, they had served 35 percent of their sentences.

The cost of imprisoning criminals is as much as $25,000 a year. But the price to society for every murder is estimated at $2.4 million. From 1987 to 1990, the lifetime costs for violent crimes alone are estimated at $178 billion.

Prisons save lives. Tripling prison population from 1975 to 1989 reduced potential violent crime in 1989 alone by almost 400,000 rapes, murders, robberies and severe assaults.

Prisons cannot end crime, no number of them. But it is intellectually slovenly to believe that they do no good and are filled mostly with gentle, first-time pot-smokers trapped by cruel law. That is as useful as the idea that when you now walk the nighttime streets the monthly statistics will keep you cozy and safe.