False Alarm

April 01, 1999 3 min read

Zimring takes issue with widely reported studies done in 1995 and 1996 that forecast a coming crime wave. Back then, researchers were influenced by statistics that showed that the homicide arrest rate for 14- to 17-year-olds had tripled to 30 per 100,000 youths from 10 per 100,000 in 1985.

Bleak statistics led 40 states to revamp juvenile codes to impose mandatory minimum sentences, try children as adults, and strip confidentiality protections that had been shielding children for more than a century. “Demographics do not have to be destiny,” says James Alan Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of a 1996 study predicting a surge in teen violence. “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.”

Zimring, however, argues that the alarming spike in the rate of violent juvenile crime in the early 1990s was directly linked to increased use of handguns during the high point of the crack epidemic and to more aggressive police reporting, not to some evil transformation in the nature of children. As an example, he dissects the statistics that suggest that the rate of aggravated assault among teenagers doubled between 1984 and 1992. The increase, he says, was not the result of a skyrocketing number of assaults by teens. Rather, police departments were changing the way they report and classify arrests, in many cases upgrading some simple assaults to aggravated assaults.

By 1997, the U.S. Department of Justice was reporting that the homicide rate among 14- to 17-year-olds had plunged to 16 per 100,000 youths from 30 per 100,000 in 1993. Homicides by juveniles committed with weapons other than guns remained constant during that period. The reasons, according to Zimring: The crack market declined in the mid-1990s, and municipal police departments began an aggressive confiscation of handguns.

Howard Snyder, director of systems research for the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, agrees with Zimring’s conclusions. Snyder says that laws passed in the 1980s, for instance, obligated police to aggressively investigate domestic-violence incidents. “People are misattributing changes [in crime rates] to the offenders and not to the system’s changing response to the offenders,” he says. “You should applaud the police and not blame the kids.”

But changing perceptions is difficult. The Justice Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., reported a decline last year in school-related violent deaths-from 55 fatalities in the 1992-93 school year to 40 in 1997-98. But the high-profile string of school shootings from Paducah, Kentucky, to Springfield, Oregon, left an indelible impression that school violence is on the rise.

Faced with public outcry over the perceived increase in juvenile crime, elected officials have a powerful incentive to foresee the worst, Snyder says. “If you predict bad, and it’s bad, you are right,” he says. “If you predict bad and it ends up being good, then you are a savior because you forewarned this problem.”

Others in the field are unwilling to let down their guards. “It’s nice to know violent juvenile crime is down,” says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, “but I’m still not going to leave my doors unlocked or keep my keys in the ignition.” Stephens cited recent school crime statistics that show that 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 says.

But Gene Heinle, principal at Springfield High School in Oregon, seems able to accept Zimring’s findings. His school is six miles from the spot where Kipland Kinkel shot and killed two classmates last May. Yet Heinle says he hopes people will not give up on students. “The shooting was strictly an aberration and not part of a trend,” he says. “Sometimes unusual things happen.”

--Jessica Portner