Juvenile crime dip: Can we build on it?

August 18, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

THE DOWNTICK in violent juvenile crime in 1995, just reported by Attorney General Janet Reno -- a 2.9 percent drop overall, murders declined 15.2 percent -- doesn't mean we're on our way out of the woods.

The new figures follow some terrifying years -- six in which juvenile arrests for murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault rose 50 percent; seven in which juvenile arrests for weapons law violations doubled; 10 years that saw the number of homicides by juveniles triple.

And the decline comes just as experts have been warning of a firestorm of crime as the ranks of 14- to 17-year-olds -- youth in their most violence-prone years -- will increase by 23 percent in the next decade.

Still, the 1995 figures are heartening because they shatter the idea of an inevitable surge of dangerous youth crime we're powerless to control.

What did cause the 1995 decline? How do we accelerate it?

Social conservatives will credit last year's drop to the popular new wave of laws allowing juveniles to be tried as adults, punishing truancy and imposing curfews, putting more youthful offenders behind bars.

The truancy and curfew laws are too new, though, to have had an impact. And the yearly, fresh supply of potential young criminals makes it unlikely incarceration alone could ever reverse recent years' stunning growth in juvenile crime.

What then of the "softer," crime-prevention side -- after-school recreation opportunities for children, family counseling, creating "safe" places, drug rehabilitation?

The vast majority of people who work with troubled youth want to stress the prevention measures. The Raleigh News & Observer summed up the feeling of several court officials and social service leaders -- that "cracking down on teen violence without also attacking its causes is like bailing out a leaky boat with a pickax."

But it has been prevention efforts that legislatures, for most of the '90s, have been de-emphasizing and de-funding in their rush show how tough they are on teen-age thugs.

The likeliest cause of a youth crime dip is community policing -- the '90s police departments' efforts to form stronger links with neighborhood residents.

Community policing is strongest in some of the big cities afflicted by the worst youth crime, especially homicides. "Every place that I have examined where community policing has occurred, there has been a dramatic drop in crime, particularly in violent crime," says Marvin Wolfgang, the noted University of Pennsylvania penologist.

Combining community policing with proactive efforts to get guns out of the hands of youth produces real results, as New York and Boston have learned. Youth murders in New York have been dropping rapidly; in Boston, not a single juvenile has been killed with a gun so far in 1996.

But no one thinks improved policing, alone, can cope with the youth crime problem. Ms. Reno has it about right when she says we need "to be both tough and smart."

Swift punishment

On the one hand, that means "swift, certain, appropriate punishment." If teen-agers are punished quickly and logically after a petty theft, truancy or shoplifting, the chances are substantially less they'll advance to violent crimes later.

On the other hand, she says, "We will never arrest, prosecute and incarcerate our way out of the problem."

A new twist is that state legislatures, so hot for draconian punishment in the '90s, are starting to warm up to prevention agendas.

Oregon, for example, has established a "First Break" tax credit for employers who hire gang-involved or gang-affected youths. Connecticut has mandated evaluation teams and early intervention for youth in trouble.

The Missouri Legislature is funding special violence prevention programs in the schools, including identifying at-risk kids and training them in conflict resolution and ways to control aggressive behavior.

Missouri has also balanced a parental accountability and responsibility act with legislation fostering improved record-keeping. The goal: that everyone involved in youth rehabilitation knows what's happening with each kid, and can collaborate on preventive steps.

Today's Congress seems out of step with these common-sense approaches. House Judiciary Crime Subcommittee chairman Bill McCollum, R-Fla., is pushing a bill with a title that tells it all -- "The Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996." It would force all sorts of strict mandates, from curfew laws to treating juvenile offenders like adults, on any state that wants federal aid dollars.

Former Attorney General Elliot Richardson has a good reply: "Locking up dangerous criminals is a necessary defense, but you can never win a war if you're only fighting defense."

With increasingly tough juvenile crime laws already on the books in most states, the time's clearly ripe to take Mr. Richardson's counsel and experiment with a rich variety of prevention programs.

They can only help. They could make this year's more positive juvenile justice figures harbingers of a much less frightening future.

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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