Juvenile crime? Go figure

October 30, 1998|By David Altschuler

IN the waning days of the gubernatorial race, be prepared to hear a bewildering and contradictory set of claims about the extent and nature of juvenile crime in Maryland and what should be done to prevent and reduce such crime. There is probably no greater political football than teen crime and punishment policy.

Politicians seem unable to resist scoring points on this critical and highly emotional topic, yet it is precisely because of the understandably emotional and passionate feelings of the public that politicians of all stripes should treat the issue with care, precision and objectivity.

Some little-known truths about youths, crime and punishment might be helpful to voters confronting what masquerades as fact about the level and type of crime juveniles commit. Juvenile crime, by its nature, is measured by numbers of arrests, not actual juvenile crime.

The truth is, juvenile arrest figures vary regardless of how much juvenile crime there is. For a crime to be classified as "juvenile crime," it means reported crime is investigated and solved with the arrest of a youngster.

This, of course, is easily influenced by the priority police give to particular types of crime and the places where crime is committed. Very aggressive policing for, say, curfew violations, truancy or fighting can surely produce more juvenile arrests. But that doesn't mean there's been more truancy or fights than before.

Likewise, if police place more effort, time and manpower on certain types of crime or particular neighborhoods, arrests for other, perhaps lower-priority crimes, may go down. But it doesn't mean there is less juvenile crime; just fewer arrests.

Community policing strategies that handle less-serious fights with a problem-solving approach that emphasizes not arrest and prosecution but rather referral for conflict resolution and anger management, would likely produce fewer juvenile arrests for violence. While a different police response may produce less violence in the future, at least in the short run, fewer arrests of kids for violence does not necessarily signal real reductions in juvenile violence.

The point is, juvenile crime statistics are based on juvenile arrest statistics and thus such statistics are imperfect and potentially misleading indicators of the trend in juvenile crime. Overall crime is typically drawn from statistics on changes in all reported crime, where it doesn't matter if there has been an arrest. Juvenile arrest statistics can, of course, only be generated if there has been an arrest.

What is often lost in the impassioned rhetoric over what to do about juvenile crime is the fact that, more so than adults, juveniles tend to commit crimes in groups. Thus, it is not unusual for police to solve a single juvenile crime by arresting more than one teen. This means that there's not necessarily a correlation between the number of juveniles arrested and the number of crimes committed. For example, five teen-agers arrested for one incident of vandalism might appear as 10 instances of vandalism, which ultimately is misleading.

A better approach is to compare juvenile crime statistics based on "solved" cases and arrests of juveniles to "solved" cases for overall crime. With that approach, for the year 1997, it appears that 15 percent of solved crimes in Maryland involved one or more juveniles, down 1 percent from 1996.

Further, if you then extrapolate to all violent crime in Maryland, there were roughly 1,000 fewer violent crimes committed by juveniles in the state in 1997 compared with the previous year.

This is good news. It means that between 1996 and 1997, both the number of juvenile arrests for violent crimes and the estimated number of violent crimes committed by juveniles were moving in the same downward direction.

While these notable declines do not by themselves make for a trend, they suggest that violent juvenile crime is moving in the right direction. To the extent that juvenile crime is going down, it makes little sense to build any more kid prisons no matter how "special" it is promised that they'll be.

Particularly during this important election time, when politicians are selling juvenile crime statistics, let the buyer beware.

David Altschuler is a professor of sociology and a principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. His area of focus is juvenile justice reform and youth crime.

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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