Friday, December 22, 2006

Sharp decline in teenage crime

Predicted wave of crime by brutal teens never came -
Researchers note good economy, population shifts
Greve, Frank. Lexington Herald-Leader, March 8, 2006, pg. A5.

WASHINGTON -- A new generation of brutal and remorseless teens was about to savage the nation, leading authorities on juvenile crime warned a decade ago. Millions believed them.

Conservative criminologist John DiIulio called them "super-predators." He estimated that they'd number nearly 200,000 by now. Even Attorney General Janet Reno foresaw violent crime by youths doubling.

It never happened.

Instead, Americans are seeing the sharpest decline in teen crime in modern history. Schools today are as safe as they were in the 1960s, according to Justice Department figures.

Juvenile homicide arrests are down from 3,800 a year to fewer than 1,000, and only a handful occurred in schools. Arrest rates for robbery, rape and aggravated assault are off a third since 1980 for those aged 10-18, according to the Justice Department's 2006 National Report on Juvenile Offenders and Victims, due out later this month.

"Kids now are less violent than you were," James Rieland, the director of juvenile court services in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County, tells new prosecutors.

Today, criminologists say the real question is what went right during the long period of relative peace that began in the mid-'90s.

As it is, teen-crime declines leveled off in 2002 and 2003, the latest years for which solid numbers are available. Simple assaults are up, especially among girls, according to the upcoming Justice Department report, and teen drug arrests, although off their peaks, never fell as far as violent and property crimes. That's the bad news, said criminologist Franklin Zimring of the University of California-Berkeley School of Law. "The good news," he added, "is that juvenile crime overall is staying at the lowest level it's been in 36 years."

The rise and fall of crack cocaine was the biggest factor, most juvenile-crime experts agree. Others include an inner-city influx of Latino families, a thriving economy, improved strategies for dealing with real and potential delinquents, more adult imprisonment, smarter policing and better school-parent partnerships.

According to criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, teen crime's decline is largely the reversal of a rise that started in the mid-'80s when youths took over drug gangs from adult dealers imprisoned under tougher state and federal laws.

The teens needed guns "because crack was a street market and you had to protect yourself," Blumstein said. "And they didn't have the restraint that older folks do."

But crack's fade is just part of the story, because teen crime also fell sharply in suburbs where crack was scarce and in rural communities where there was none.

Other factors in the decline:
* Good economic times. In the decade of economic expansion that ended in 2000, the number of older teens neither in school nor at full-time jobs dropped by nearly a third, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

* Population shifts. The Latino population in central cities swelled as teen crime declined, according to Jeff Roth, a University of Pennsylvania criminologist. Their influx, Roth said, brought more intact families, stronger values, higher religious participation -- and lower crime rates. At the same time, many of the black families they replaced moved to suburbs where poverty was less concentrated. "Kids once confined to the inner city started seeing lifestyles other than the street," Roth said.

* Learning what works. Criminologists decided in the '90s to track what worked to reduce teen crime. Boot camps didn't work, they found. Nor did trying juveniles in adult courts. Big Brother and Big Sister mentoring worked. Foster care for delinquents worked better than lock-ups.

* Imprisoning adults. The incarceration rate rose from one for each 1,000 adults to four from the '80s to today, and it has many foes. But Blumstein, who's among them, and others think that jailing more adults sharply reduced the number of teens who commit crimes with adult accomplices.


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