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Finding progress in crime data

Law-abiding Americans applaud the reports of law enforcement authorities that they have broken up a major drug ring. It's accused of having illegally shipped five tons of cocaine from Colombia to the United States between June of 1982 and last September, with a wholesale value of $3.8 billion.

Sold to individual drug users, it would bring far more money, by one account enough to cover the current annual national debt of some $200 billion. Law enforcement authorities arrested 53 people; one officer said he believed it the ''largest nationwide narcotics investigation ever.'' The case is one result of the stepped-up Justice Department effort to combat drug smuggling during William French Smith's three years as attorney general.

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But this case, and drug smuggling generally, are parts of a much larger crime picture, and need to be seen in that context. In the early 1980s overall crime in the US has finally begun to decline, down 3 percent in 1982 from '81, the latest available annual figures. One hopesthis decline is permanent.

Many explanations are offered for the change.

One comes from social scientists, who had anticipated such a decline. They note that the number of young males in their teens and 20s, who commit such a high percentage of crime, is lower now than in the '70s, when the children of the post World War II baby boom were teen-agers. Many of the youthful criminals of the last decade are believed to have left crime behind: A Justice Department survey this year found that nearly half of all criminals have gone straight by the time they are 40.

Another reason often advanced is the increased law enforcement effort, led by the current Justice Department, to concentrate on catching and prosecuting repeat offenders who make a career out of crime. Prison levels have been at a record high this year. An allied explanation is more forceful prosecution and tougher sentencing.

Finally, many neighborhoods throughout the US have shouldered more responsibility for preventing crime, with residents establishing self-help programs to watch out for one another and to cooperate with local police. In these communities, burglary and other kinds of crime have generally dipped substantially.

Crime is more than a concern of Americans and a statistic with law enforcement agencies. Public officials are well aware of its potential at election time. Some have a tendency to publicize anticrime successes as a way of playing to the voters.

Americans need to be watchful this election year to differentiate between unsupported claims about crime reduction and actual reduction that is due to official action. The latter deserves to be appreciated; the interruption of any major drug rings falls in this category.

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