Some of the public's darkest concerns about crime - that it is growing unchecked, that the elderly are particularly frequent victims, that judges let hordes of defendants off untouched - are myths, a newly released study shows.
In fact, the average US adult is no more likely to be a victim of crime today than he or she was a decade ago. Senior citizens are less likely to be crime victims than the young. Most cases brought to trial end in a guilty ruling.
These are among the findings of a sweeping report on crime and justice in America just released by the United States Justice Department. The study is designed to give US citizens an accurate picture of how crime affects their lives.
''By any measure, crime is an enormous problem,'' says Steven Schlesinger, director of the Justice Deptartment's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 1981, the last year covered in the study, almost one-third of all US households were touched by crime. Criminal actions cost the economy $9.5 billion , the Justice Department estimates.
But crime is not an evil force gaining in strength, threatening to imprison people in their homes behind deadbolt locks and window bars. The overall level of US crime hasn't changed much since 1973, says the study, citing the National Crime Survey.
What the criminals are doing, however, has changed. Violent crimes (excepting homicide) have increased 9 percent since 1973, though they still account for only a small slice of all criminal activity. Larceny, burglary, and motor-vehicle theft, on the other hand, have all shown relatively significant declines.
The feeling that crime is on the march may stem from the fact that more and more victims are going to the police, Justice Department officials say. Crime reported to police departments increased by 40 percent during the '70s, though the majority of victims, for whatever reason, still don't inform the authorities , the report says.
And those victims aren't necessarily who we think they are. Press reports often center on violent crimes directed at the elderly or women, say Justice Department officials, and indeed these two groups express the greatest fear of crime. But senior citizens are much less likely to be crimi-uffeajump,20p4 CRIMECRIMEufmrk,41l
nals' targets than the young. Men are more often victims than women. Blacks are more likely to be struck by violent crime than whites.
Victims today, however, at least have a much better chance of being compensated for their suffering than they had in the past. The first victim compensation program was started in California in 1965; the idea has since been adopted by 36 other states. These programs paid out $34 million in 1980, with most of the money covering medical expenses or loss of earnings.
The report's picture of the typical criminal is not too surprising.
''Most offenders are male, young, and share many traits with their victims,'' says Ralph Rossum, deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. They are also disproportionately from minority groups, he adds.
What is surprising is how many of them there are. The study estimates that 36 million to 40 million Americans - 16 to 18 percent of the country's population - have been arrested for something other than a traffic violation.
That doesn't mean, however, that almost a fifth of US citizens are hardened criminals. Offenders typically start young, then ''grow out of the crime-prone ages,'' points out Carol Kalish, Justice Statistics data analysis chief. Yet their arrest records stay on the books, even if they've gone straight.
The vast majority of crimes, she adds, are committed by a small group of ''career'' criminals.
In any case, for each individual crime, criminals run little risk of being caught. Only about 20 percent of offenses are settled through an arrest, the Justice Department estimates.
The length of time it takes victims to report crime is a crucial factor in determining whether an arrest is made. If it takes more than a minute, the chances of apprehending the guilty party drop off sharply.
But once caught and brought to trial, criminals find it difficult to escape the grip of justice. Most prosecuted cases, the report says, result in convictions. In Los Angeles during 1979, for instance, 73 percent of felony cases ended in a guilty verdict.