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Super Predators No More?

Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute speaks about a surprising federal study that shows youth crime at its lowest rate in decades.
 
 
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Although 1999 was the year of the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colo. and mass anxiety about youth crime, it also was the year that juvenile arrests for murder fell to their lowest rate since 1966.

Is this an example of millennial inversions, of discrepancies inexplicable and strange? According to Howard N. Snyder, author of the just-released U.S. Justice Department report, Juvenile Arrests 1999, "It is very difficult to determine the cause of rates in murder, rape, robbery and assault from year to year."

But given the results of his number-crunching: that, among Americans under 18, robbery dropped 53 percent from 1991 to 1999; that rape went down 31 percent from 1991 to 1999; that burglary decreased 60 percent from 1980 to 1999; and that crime in almost every category -- assault, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson -- fell by more than 23 percent over the last six to 10 years, it is difficult to believe there are no general causes.

One of the most obvious is the economy. When times are good, crime rates tend to go down. The other is the relationship between federal policy, such as handgun and imprisonment legislation, and crime. This may seem like simplistic thinking, but in the world of policy makers and criminologists, making such connections is the stuff of political tightrope walking.

"Nobody mentioned crime during the federal welfare debate, for example," said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, which studies crime rates closely. "The reason is that since the '80s criminologists have taken a beating from the right wing. The right views human beings as completely responsible actors, unaffected by racism, poverty, unemployment and education, and this thinking has seeped from academia to think tanks to practically everywhere."

The other reason juvenile crime rates are a political hot potato is because they can say quite a lot about the state -- healthy or sick -- of American culture. In 1995, 20/20 aired a report titled "Super Predators." Its subject was the early 1990's rise in juvenile crime, and among its leading commentators was John DiIulio, a Princeton sociologist, who claimed youth crime spelled a crisis in American morals.

"These kids are fatherless," DiIulio said. "Godless and without conscience. They have no hope, no direction and no future. We're not dealing with kids who are economically poor ... we're dealing with kids who are spiritually poor."

To learn more about the dissemination of information on youth crime as well as the Justice Department's new report, AlterNet spoke with Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute.

AlterNet: Why has the rate of juvenile crime dropped in almost every category over the past decade?

Schiraldi: It's always difficult to try to simplify the complex factors that contribute to crime into one or two causes. Having said that, if I had to pick two factors, I'd pick guns and poverty. The sharp increases in youth homicides we saw from the mid-1980s to the early '90s came during a time when handgun availability was escalating and the economy was reeling. This, in turn, created the climate -- particularly in inner city areas of concentrated poverty -- in which the crack-cocaine epidemic flourished.

Since the mid-1990s, two things have happened that have doubtless contributed to the decline in youth crime. Domestic production of civilian firearms, particularly handguns, peaked in 1993. The number of families with children below the poverty level peaked in 1993. And juvenile homicides peaked in 1993. All three have simultaneously plummeted, so that today there are a quarter fewer families with children in poverty, over a thousand fewer guns put into circulation annually and 68 percent fewer youth homicide arrests -- the lowest juvenile homicide arrest rates since the 1960s. It defies the imagination to think that those powerful factors have simply coincided.

AlterNet: Are the crime rate drops also related to the economic boom?

Schiraldi: This economic boom has been different from previous economic booms, and it has many in the criminological community playing catch-up. The connection between unemployment and crime was often considered to be a tenuous one, largely because economic booms of the past never reached into truly impoverished neighborhoods. This boom, on the other hand, has. The wage-earning cohort that has received the largest increase in wages during the current boom, for example, is the lowest earning workers. The economic improvements for the poor and very poor in turn have a multiplier effect on young people. It employs teenagers who are thereby productively occupied. It employs their parents, thereby lifting their self-esteem and rendering them less likely to abuse substances and abuse their kids. And it has a beneficial affect on their neighborhoods, making them healthier places in which to grow up. Now I'm not saying that poor people are making out like bandits, just that they are more likely to be employed and are making more than in the past, and that's having a beneficial impact on crime by adults and youth.

AlterNet: Why do Americans today think kids commit more crimes than they actually do?

Schiraldi: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there really was a significant increase in juvenile crime, particularly homicides, by kids. Caught up in the political feeding-frenzy over crime, many ne'er-do-well politicians sought to mine the crime issue for votes, whipping up fears to aggrandize their political careers. During this time, 43 states made it easier to try juveniles as adults, for example, and adult prison populations doubled to nearly two million.

The mainstream media generally followed the rantings of many of these politicians. So, for example, between 1992 and 1996, despite the fact that there was a 20 percent decline in homicides in America, there was a 721 percent increase in coverage of murders on the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news. Since three-quarters of Americans form their opinions about crime from information they garner from the news media, it is not surprising that two-thirds of the public think juvenile crime is up, even though it is as low as it has been in a generation.

AlterNet: How much has the Columbine shooting and other recent school shootings affected people's views about juvenile crime?

Schiraldi: It is difficult to overstate how the highly publicized spate of school shootings affected public opinion and policy. The year of the tragedy at Columbine, there were 26 school-associated deaths in America's schools, which educate a population of 52 million school students. This means that there was less than a 1 in a 2 million chance of being killed in one of America's schools that year, a decline of 40 percent from the previous year. Assaults and carrying weapons in schools had also all declined by double digits in the years leading up to Columbine. School violence and school shootings were and are on the decline, and schools continue to be one of the safest places for America's children to be.

Yet Americans are perhaps as afraid of their schools as they've ever been. Seven in 10 respondents to a Wall Street Journal Poll believe it is likely that there will be a shooting in their neighborhood school. Despite the 40 percent decline in school shootings, respondents to a USA Today poll were 49 percent more likely to believe such a shooting was likely in 1999 than in 1998. Although data consistently show that youths in rural schools are the least likely to be victimized by crime, rural parents are more fearful of crime in their schools than urban or suburban parents. All of this has resulted in 3.1 million suspensions and expulsions from America's schools, expulsions which occur at twice the rate they occurred when my, more violent classmates and I attended school in the late 1970s.

AlterNet: Is the decline in juvenile crime related to the passage of tough juvenile justice laws such as Proposition 21 in California and the "10-20-Life Junior" plan in Florida?

Schiraldi: Interestingly, many of these juvenile crackdowns occurred after declines in juvenile crime had already occurred and despite the fact that youth crime was dropping sharply. For example, in California, during the 1990s, the adult incarceration rate rose precipitously, while the youth incarceration rate stayed fairly stable, and no major juvenile crime legislation passed. Yet, during the 1990s, youth crime in the Golden State experienced a greater decline than adult crime did -- hardly a shot in the arm for the "law and order" crowd. Still, in March of 2000, well after a substantial drop in youth crime had already occurred, California voters passed Proposition 21, making it easier to try thousands of youth in adult court and imprison them in adult prisons. One possible reason why is that 60 percent of respondents to a 1996 California Wellness Foundation poll reported that they thought that young people "commit most crime nowadays," even though youth in California made up less than one in five arrests in 1996.

AlterNet: Why have juvenile arrests for drug abuse violations and arrests for curfew and loitering violations increased 132 percent and 113 percent, respectively, between 1990 and 1999?

Schiraldi: Part of the problem with the public's misperception that youth crime is increasing when it's really falling is that, even as kids behave better, we treat them worse. So, despite the fact that young people today are less likely than my generation was to commit crimes, take drugs, binge drink and have children during their teenage years, we're finding ways to criminalize them anyway.

This shows up in the fact that schools suspend and expell twice as many young people today than they did when I was in high school. It also shows up in arrests for things like drugs and curfew violations. Through police sweeps targetted largely at inner city, minority youth, America's law enforcement approach has targetted young blacks and Latinos as public enemy number one. While the Drug Czar's polling data consistently show that African-American and white youth use drugs at roughly the same rates, African-American youth consistently make up the overwhelming majority of kids locked up for drug offenses. Instead of "driving while black" arrests, these youth are often subject to "standing while black" arrests. As we endeavor to create a fair and effective juvenile justice system in this century, the disparate treatment of minority youth needs to be at the top of our agenda.

AlterNet: What can be done to further decrease juvenile crime? to improve the juvenile incarceration system?

Schiraldi: America has a tremendous opportunity now to move forward on reducing youth crime and improving our juvenile justice system. With youth crime rates falling to 1960s levels, communities should be downsizing or eliminating their youth prisons, and diverting funds that currently go to incarceration into model youth development efforts and alternatives to youth incarceration. That's why it is so disturbing that much of the public and many policy makers are still unaware of declines in youth crime. In an environment saturated with this much bad information about our young people, it is exceedingly difficult to set sound public policy for youth.

AlterNet: What did you find to be the most surprising revelations in the Justice Department study?

Schiraldi: The National Crime Victimization survey is an annual survey conducted by the Census Bureau and analyzed and published by the Justice Department and is broadly considered to be the best measure of crime by criminologists. In their most recent survey, youth crime was at its lowest since that survey began in 1973. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports, which the Justice Department released last week, is the best source of youth crime data on youth homicide arrests (which are not counted in the Census Bureau survey). That showed homicides at their lowest since the 1960s. This means that youth crime is lower today than it was for most of the baby-boom generation. As a baby-boomer, I can tell you on behalf of my generation -- that was surprising.

AlterNet: Has the toughening mood in America's juvenile justice system been meted out equally along racial and ethnic lines?

Schiraldi: Study after study consistently shows that, even controlling for prior record and current offenses, black and Latino youth consistently get a worse deal at the hands of the juvenile justice system. The Building Blocks for Youth Initiative is a project that was recently established to specifically address the disproportionate confinement of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. In one of their studies, they showed that when you compare groups of white youth and African-American youth who have no prior history of incarceration who have been charged with drug offenses, the African-American youth are 48 times as likely to be sentenced to incarceration as the white youth. This overrepresentation was most extreme in the drug category, but was true for violent, property and public order offenses as well.

AlterNet: Why has there been so little press coverage of the Justice Department report?

Schiraldi: Good news always has a hard time penetrating the media. If there was a 68 percent increase in youth homicides, I suspect it would have made the front page of most U.S. newspapers. In addition today, as compared to when I was a teenager in the '70s, there are an abundance of 24-hour news shows that blast youth crime (and adult crime) at viewers morning, noon and night. The news media are voracious consumers of their own product. I believe that watching graphic depictions of youth crime in high doses has convinced not only the public and policy makers, but news directors, that youth today are out of control. Reports about declining youth crime don't fit the media's script about youth in America. Such reports are therefore trivialized.

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For more information about the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative, see www.buildingblocksforyouth.org.

For more information about the work of the Justice Policy Institute, see www.cjcj.org.

To view the Juvenile Arrest 1999 report, see www.ojjdp.ncjrs.org.