Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Everything You Know About Juvenile Crime Is Wrong

There's a serious Arizona issue that I didn't have time to explain in this past Sunday's column, which as noted is based on very good reporting by Frank Greve of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau. As noted by a judicial friend, John Dilulio was one of the "experts" quoted during the Prop 102 campaign in 1996 sponsored by Fife Symington, Andy Thomas, and others that successfully changed the way juveniles were prosecuted in Arizona. Voters were told that prosecuting juveniles as adults would lower violent crime. As it turned out, we now know that violent crime among juveniles started decreasing before Prop 102 became law and continued going lower, regardless of state try-'em-as-adult policies. Prop 102 has not been used to transfer as many juveniles as predicted, but the number transferred has substantially increased. But what hasn't happened that was promised was a long-term study to see if the increase in adult prosecution would lower crime among those prosecuted as adults or actually increase adult crime because those juveniles were exposed to the adult prison system which has had a rich history of recidivism.

Children's Action Alliance has a task force studying the broader issue, and it certainly will be interesting to see a thorough study done. If Prop 102 and adult prosecution of juveniles actually gave us more crime and criminals, someone should be assessed responsibility. (After all, it's the Responsibility Era!) A 2003 report by CAA on juvenile justice is available here; it was prepared before the statistical trends became even more clear.

With dramatic drops in juvenile crime, it looks like all of the political advantage has been exploited for now. But someday another series of media-rich crimes will be blamed on juveniles and the usual political suspects will try to exploit them again for short term political advantage. Arizona's juveniles (mostly of color) and their families will pay the short-term price, and I'm willing to wager that we all will pay for the exploitation in the long run.

On a lighter note, I was Chair of the Arizona Democratic Party during the 1996 elections, and when a radio reporter asked me what the results "meant" (Clinton-Gore had carried the state, while Republicans gained elsewhere, and Prop 102, which had been opposed on a bipartisan basis, won) I said that the voters had spoken clearly; they wanted Gov. Fife Symington to be tried as an adult. Also, one of my Tribune readers pointed out that if juvenile crime is down to levels we haven't seen since the mid-1960's, then you can't blame higher crime on banning school prayer anymore. Won't that upset the 'wingers!

And my editor answers a crucial question differently than I would; I'd put the closing single quote inside the colon, not outside. But that's because I'm funny about colons. Or semi-funny about semicolons.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 12, 2006

Remember the “super-predators?” In 1995, the nation got its knickers all twisted over lurid predictions of increasing numbers of brutal, remorseless, even feral teenage boys who would explode the amount and viciousness of juvenile crime.

The theory originated with John Dilulio, one of the first to destroy his professional reputation by working in the Bush administration. Dilulio predicted that increasing numbers of males in the prime crime-time years of 15 to 24 would lack connections with civil society, families, and churches, and would wreak criminal-justice havoc. His theory received vast attention, in no small measure because of his sensational name for this demographic threat: Super-predators.

Dilulio expanded his theory in a book, Body Count, co-authored with John Walters and noted gambling expert William Bennett. They blamed the looming juvenile crime plague on “moral decay.”

Well, guess what? As documented by reporter Frank Greve of Knight Ridder, the juvenile crime wave never happened. (Hat tip: Kevin Drum.) Instead, juvenile crime is down, to levels not seen for forty years. Greve quotes James Rieland, the juvenile court services director in Pittsburgh, who tells new prosecutors, “Kids now are less violent than you were.”

Perhaps Dilulio and Bennett could acknowledge that actual statistics indicate our moral state has (gasp!) improved. That’s a concept completely alien to ‘wingers, that today could be better than the past. But with juvenile crime, it’s true.


Juvenile murder arrests have declined almost to a quarter of their peaks 20 years ago. Arrest rates for robbery, aggravated assault, and rape are down a third. The news isn’t all good; simple assaults are up, especially among girls, and the rate of decline has been intermittent, with some leveling off recently. But instead of exploding as the numbers of teen and young adult males increased significantly, crime rates had started dropping even before Dilulio made his predictions, and it’s staying at the lowest rates in nearly four decades.

Like the “crack babies epidemic,” the super-predators were merely meme-pleasing hype. It’s one of the dirty little secrets of punditry that you never have to apologize for being wrong on the downside -- and that the same people who complain that the media obsess about violence in Iraq and ignore that 80 percent of the country isn’t in a civil war obsess about one or two violent crimes and ignore the statistics showing that today’s kids commit fewer crimes than their elders.

Most experts interviewed by Greve believe that the drop in youth crime didn’t have one big cause, but rather many smaller causes, including the decline in crack cocaine abuse (but crime also fell in rural and suburban communities that never saw much crack), a strong economy, greater parental involvement in schools, and demographic shifts in urban areas from black to Hispanic. Some more controversial potential causes are increased adult incarceration rates and, according to best-selling economist Steven Levitt, legalized abortion.

Criminologists also tracked what strategies helped, and which didn’t. Some of the more voter-pleasing tactics, like boot camps, suspending or holding back students, and trying juveniles in adult courts, didn’t. Fuzzy-headed stuff, like mentoring programs and foster care with well-trained foster parents, actually worked. Greve reports that experts found that single-parent households aren’t necessarily an indicator of trouble; it turns out that “if one parent is strong and consistent, the second isn’t missed when it comes to preventing delinquency.”


Let's not be too hard on Dilulio; if you make predictions, you’ll make wrong ones. (Although it is interesting to note that he refused to return phone calls and messages when Greve tried to reach him for a comment.) But we need to acknowledge when we’re wrong, and make sure that we don’t let what seems like a good story to cause us to ignore the truth. The myth of impossible-to-educate crack babies provided a handy excuse to write off large numbers of urban kids and their schools. The imaginary hordes of super-predators looming on the horizon meant boring, useful things like education, jobs, and recreation seemed useless fripperies in what would be no-holds-barred urban warfare.

In both cases, the woeful predictions never came true, and real problems could be blissfully ignored. With juvenile crime and the “super-predators,” please wake up and smell the data.

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