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Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as Author Says Fear Of Youth Crime Outstrips the Facts

Author Says Fear Of Youth Crime Outstrips the Facts

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Criminologists have warned of an impending tidal wave of youth crime, and over the past five years, many politicians have responded with tougher penalties for juvenile offenders. Some school leaders, jolted by a chilling string of recent shootings by students, have fortified campuses in preparation for more trouble.

But this much-heralded "juvenile crime storm" is only a mirage, a California law professor contends.

Franklin E. Zimring

Franklin E. Zimring, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that widely reported predictions about adolescent crime are based on flawed statistics that have fueled public policy based more on fear than fact.

The alarming spike in the rate of violent juvenile crime that began a decade ago was directly linked to greater use of handguns and more aggressive reporting by police, not to a transformation in children's natures, he says in a recently released book based on an earlier study.

"The coming storm of juvenile violence is more science fiction than social science," Mr. Zimring says in American Youth Violence, published in December by Oxford University Press.

Mr. Zimring takes issue with widely reported studies done in 1995 and 1996 that signaled an increase in juvenile crime. The homicide-arrest rate for 14- to 17-year-olds had just tripled: from 10 per 100,000 youths in 1985 to 30 per 100,000 in 1993.

In the 1995 study, some crime researchers calculated that if the rate at which juveniles committed violent crimes continued to increase and the adolescent population swelled by 22 percent as expected, the number of teenagers arrested in connection with violent crimes would nearly double to 261,000 by 2010.

In a separate 1996 study, James Alan Fox, the dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, predicted that the number of killings by teenagers could increase from 4,000 in 1994 to almost 5,000 in 2005, a jump of 25 percent in one decade.

Both those predictions were built on the assumption that a larger pool of teenagers would lead to more violent crime--essentially, that a baby boomlet would produce a huge number of remorseless murderers or "superpredators."

"Demographics do not have to be destiny," Mr. Fox said in a recent interview. "But we need to think about the future and prepare for it now, or else we could be blindsided by another increase in youth crime that will make us some day look back at the '90s and say those were the good old days."

With that concern in mind, state leaders in the past decade have imposed sweeping changes in juvenile-crime laws. Forty states have revamped their juvenile codes to impose mandatory minimum sentences, try minors as adults, and strip confidentiality protections that had been conferred on minors for more than a century.

Changes in statehouses are now being echoed in schoolhouses. A succession of multiple shootings last school year at campuses from West Paducah, Ky., to Springfield, Ore., shocked many districts into retooling their security plans. Though a report last summer by the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, showed that school-related violent deaths had declined from 55 fatalities in 1992-93 to 40 in 1997-98, the tender ages of the student assailants in last year's incidents and the high casualty rate per incident made swift action seem more urgent.

Guns and Police

But Mr. Zimring argues that this "sense of a national youth-violence emergency" is unwarranted.

The jump in killings by teenagers in the late 1980s is directly attributable to an increase in the availability of handguns during the high point of the crack-cocaine epidemic, Mr. Zimring writes in his book. Since municipal police departments began an aggressive confiscation of handguns and the crack market declined in the mid-1990s, the homicide rate among 14- to 17-year-olds plunged from 30 per 100,000 in 1993 to 16 per 100,000 in 1997, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. Homicides by juveniles committed with weapons other than guns remained constant during that period. Crime experts say the rate of killings by adults also fell during that period for the same reasons.

Furthermore, Mr. Zimring says, though the rate of aggravated assaults by teenagers doubled between 1984 and 1992, the increase was not the result of a skyrocketing number of assaults by teenagers, but rather a change in the way police report and classify arrests.

Starting in the early 1980s, law-enforcement officers made more discretionary arrests for assaults, he says. And at the same time, many police departments began adopting policies to upgrade some simple assaults to aggravated assaults.

Those shifting standards were reflected in laws passed in the 1980s. New legislation, for example, obligated police to aggressively investigate domestic-violence incidents, said Howard Snyder, the director of systems research for the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice.

"People are misattributing changes to the offenders and not the system's changing response to the offenders," Mr. Snyder argued. "You should applaud the police and not blame the kids," he said.

Nothing's Certain

Mr. Zimring questions whether it's possible to predict the criminal behavior of an entire generation at all.

"The only thing we can say with any certainty about the number of young people age 18 and under is how many of them there will be," he said in an interview. The purported adolescent criminals of 2010 are still preschoolers, he said, "so what are we saying, that these kids are desperadoes in diapers?"

That bleak view seemed to be reflected in what Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate said last month when they unveiled juvenile-crime bills that had a tone of crisis. "Violent crime by juveniles constitutes a growing threat to the national welfare that requires an immediate and comprehensive governmental response," says a summary of the Republican bill, titled the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999. The Democratic bill uses similar language.

Mr. Snyder of the NCJJ maintains that political leaders, faced with the public's apprehension about crime, whether well-founded or not, have a powerful incentive to foresee the worst.

"If you predict bad, and it's bad, you are right. If you predict bad, and it ends up being good, then you are the savior because you forewarned this problem," he said.

Gene Heinle, the principal at Springfield High School in Oregon, just 6 miles from the school where 15-year-old Kipland P. Kinkel is accused of fatally shooting two classmates, hopes that people won't give up on students. ("Two Students Die, 22 Injured in Ore. Rampage," May 27, 1998.)

"The shooting was strictly an aberration and not part of a trend," Mr. Heinle said. "Sometimes, unusual things happen."

But even if shooting deaths at school are uncommon, Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., cautions school leaders not to put their heads in the sand.

Mr. Stephens pointed to recent school crime statistics that show that relatively minor incidents such as theft, some assaults, and drug possession are still disturbingly high. Lesser crimes are often good indicators of more serious crimes to come, he said.

"It is nice to know violent juvenile crime is down, but I'm still not going to leave my doors unlocked or keep my keys in the ignition," he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 25, Pages 1,16-17

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