Youth Crime Falls, Because Consequences Are Up

Commentary by Pete du Pont

It's almost time to go back to school. What's the number one concern of many parents, teachers and school officials? Safety and security. Despite the notoriety of last April's slaughter at Columbine High, the good news is that youth crimes have been declining sharply since 1994.

According to the Justice Department's recent Crime Victimization Survey - based on interviews of nearly 50,000 households - serious violent crimes committed by juveniles ages 12 to 17 dropped 40 percent between 1993 and 1996. Other evidence tells the same tale. The number of youths arrested for murder has dropped 39% between 1993 and 1997, according to the FBI. During the last school year, school-related violent deaths were half of those six years earlier. The main victims of young criminals are young and the Victimization Survey also shows that serious violent crimes against youths ages 12 to 17 is down 39 percent since 1993.

So the youth crime decline is really happening. Why? Was it the elimination of violence from our movies, TV, video games and the Internet? Hardly. Maybe it's a secret revival of intact families and firm embrace of traditional morality across the land? Not likely.

Should politicians get the credit? This time, they may have a point that their handiwork has helped. Most states toughened up their laws on juvenile delinquents in the '90s and we maybe getting a positive return on our tax dollars.

Each year the police arrest nearly two million youths under age 18 on criminal charges. In 1997 one in fifteen juveniles taken into police custody were referred to criminal (adult) court - the highest percent (6.6%) in history. That means that real consequences were more likely than ever.

Still, very few youths serve any real detention time. Only about 100,000 young offenders are in secure residential facilities throughout the country, and their average length of stay is only 147 days. Most arrested youths experience little or no detention time. Probation and a dollop of community service are the worst that happens to most of them. The system remains soft, perilously close to a punishment-free zone.

The juvenile system was started exactly one century ago in Cook county, Illinois. The idea quickly spread across the nation, promoted by the same self-styled progressives who instituted such reforms as rehabilitation instead of punishment, probation, parole and the indeterminate sentence. The theory was that treatment by social workers and other experts would minister to the "best interest" of the child, and thereby reduce criminal tendencies.

Our therapeutic culture makes youth a strong excuse. As a result, the juvenile system inspires little fear. The Denver Youth Survey, a major study tracking 1,500 boys and girls since 1987, finds that arrest and processing by the juvenile justice system does little to deter delinquent behavior. After a first arrest, arrestees engage in at least as much delinquency as similar (statistically "matched") youths without an arrest.

On the other hand, in a study of all fifty states from 1977-1993, economist Steve Levitt of the University of Chicago found that juvenile offenders are at least as responsive to incarceration as adults. There is a substantial drop in criminal activity at the age of majority, especially in states that treat adult criminals severely compared to juvenile criminals. Contrary to the recent "super predator" theory over the recent rise of youth crime, Levitt believes most of the rise was a response to the softening of the juvenile system in the early 1990s compared to the toughening of adult punishment, that drove adult crime down.

Conferees on Capitol Hill currently are working on eliminating differences in the House and Senate versions of juvenile crime reform bills. Crime legislation will emerge for President Clinton's signature this year. Some provisions are praiseworthy, like those that follow the states in toughening up the treatment of juvenile offenders. Yet the bills also federalize more of crime fighting, hire more bureaucrats, spend tax money and push more controls on firearms.

What the data shows though, is that with juveniles just as adults, punishment deters. That is why youth crime is declining.



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.

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