Why are teen-agers committing less crime?

April 16, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - We adults often complain and despair over the ways of young people. Their headache-inducing music. Their drug and alcohol use. Their casual approach to sex. Their tattoos and body piercings. Their underdeveloped work ethic. Their sense of entitlement. Their attraction to gangs and guns.

So if you're over the age of 30, you would not find it surprising to learn that the crime rate among American youngsters has risen sharply in recent years.

That would merely confirm what so many people suspect: Our permissive culture has failed to instill self-respect and self-discipline in our children.

But that assumption is confounded by a surprising fact: Between 1994 and 2000, the total number of juvenile arrests fell by 13 percent.

As the Urban Institute notes in a recent study by Jeffrey Butts and Jeremy Travis, the drop in violent crimes among children under 18 was even bigger.

Arrests for aggravated assault declined by 22 percent. They were down 25 percent for rape and 51 percent for robbery. Best of all, murder arrests plunged by 68 percent.

All this happened at the same time that the number of youngsters was growing. "The rate of juvenile crime in 2000 was lower than at any time in the previous decade," report Mr. Butts and Mr. Travis.

This trend came as a surprise. In the late 1980s and early '90s, kids went on a violent binge, boosting their murder rates by half. In 1995, for example, criminologist James Q. Wilson of UCLA warned that the number of teen-agers would grow and that many of the new kids would be "high-rate, repeat offenders - 30,000 more young muggers, killers and thieves than we have now." The Council on Crime in America predicted "a coming storm of juvenile violence."

But, since 1994, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes has dropped by more than a third. In 1994, an estimated 3,700 kids were arrested for murder. In 2000, the number was down to 1,200.

What happened?

One event is that some bad things stopped happening.

The crack epidemic, which was deadly not because of the effects of the drug but because of its disruptive effect on illegal drug markets, unleashed a surge of violence as well-armed dealers and gangs fought over turf.

The economy, which had turned down in the early 1990s, experienced a record boom. Welfare reform induced many recipients to take jobs, giving their kids the message that honest work is a normal way of life.

It's tempting to think that tougher treatment of young delinquents finally made them change their ways. Many states have begun prosecuting more and more violent kids as adults and packing them off to prison for long periods of time. But that trend didn't really get rolling until after youth crime started to fall. And it doesn't necessarily work: Florida's ostentatiously fierce approach has left it with a juvenile crime rate 80 percent above the national average.

California, by contrast, spent the 1990s obstinately refusing to adopt tougher policies against juvenile offenders - leading voters to approve a 2000 ballot initiative mandating a crackdown.

What was the price for its habit of shamelessly coddling young criminals over the previous decade? California's youth crime rate "dropped like a stone," says Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the 1998 book American Youth Violence.

Obviously, something else was going on to steer kids away from violence, and it appears to be part of a bigger trend toward more sensible behavior.

During the 1990s, teen pregnancy, drinking, smoking and drug use all became less common.

For all the freedom they have, today's teen-agers show an inclination toward healthy behavior and self-preservation that past generations - their parents, for example - didn't acquire until they were older.

We may never know exactly what precipitated this welcome development. But it's nice.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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