Youth crime is not increasing

August 24, 1998|By Vincent Schiraldi

I HAVE a 7-year-old, who only this year stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, and I couldn't help thinking about her when I heard the horrifying story of two boys, ages 7 and 8, charged with killing an 11-year-old girl in Chicago. These charges surfaced the same day that two boys were sentenced in Jonesboro, Ark., for the killings in that widely publicized school shooting. The stories were instantly linked, possibly suggesting to some that there's been a rise in juvenile crime in America.

My daughter, thank God, has not encountered this violence. Actually, her chances are the same as my chances were. Despite the hype, there is no increase in the number of kids under age 13 arrested for homicides in the United States, and no increase in school killings. In 1965, 25 kids under age 13 were arrested for homicides, and in 1996, it was 16. In the 1992 to 1993 school year, there were 55 school killings, and in 1997 to 1998, there were 40. Even in Chicago, the number of killings by kids ages 10 and under hasn't risen: In the 16 years from 1966 to 1981, it was 10; in the 16 years from 1982 to present, it was eight. Overall, fewer than 3 percent of the killings in America in 1996 involved someone under age 18 killing someone else under age 18.

The only real crime trend is increasing crime coverage. According to the Center on Media and Public Affairs, between 1990 and 1995, there was a 240 percent increase in network news coverage of murders, even though the Justice Department reported that there was a 13 percent decline in homicides during that period.

In times of great fear, there is a temptation to reach for simple, often punitive solutions to complex problems. Following the Jonesboro shootings, a legislator in Texas proposed the death penalty for 11-year-olds and an Arkansas representative proposed abolishing any minimum age at which kids could be tried as adults. This is something few other countries would even consider.

How can we expect the two kids in Chicago to comprehend the horror of their alleged actions? They are the same age as my daughter. They're not adults. Yes, the crimes they are accused of are horrific.

But they don't have an adult level of understanding or responsibility, and they should not be treated as such.

Vincent Schiraldi is director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank in San Francisco and Washington that analyzes crime policy.

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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