The Crime Scene
“Youth violence,” and its spin-offs such as “kids and guns” and “the coming teenage crime storm,” are hoaxes. Like many hoaxes, they are not 100% phony. They are merely false in every important respect necessary to understanding youths, crime, guns, and violence and to designing reasoned responses.
America’s bipartisan fear lobbies declare our society is growing ever more barbaric due to terrifying increases in “youth violence” among all races and income groups while adults are doing fine. This is a lie. For the sake of agendas left to right, crucial truths have to be suppressed to the point that today’s image of crime is hopelessly distorted. The reality of crime in America over the last 25 years is clear, and clearly the opposite of the image top authorities and the media have painted.
Contrary to the headlines, here’s what standard crime sources--FBI Uniform Crime Reports, National Victimization surveys, and crime reports from major states such as New York, California, and Pennsylvania--consistently show as of 2002:
· Crime (by the most reliable measure, the Department of Justice’s annual National Crime Victimization Survey) is at its lowest level since the first survey in 1973, with the sharpest declines occurring in the 1990s.
· The reason crime declined (by FBI’s arrest records): falling crime rates among persons under 25 offset sharp increases in crime among aging baby boomers.
· During the 1990s, America’s teenage population grew by six million while serious crime declined 2.9 million by number and 30% by rate when population changes are factored in.
· The reason for the large, long-term increase in violent, property, and drug crime rates among 30-49-year-olds of all races and classes (particularly whites) appears to have been skyrocketing drug abuse. The reason for the cycles of violent crime among younger ages (nearly all among nonwhites) appears to have been poverty and joblessness.
· The reason for particularly large crime declines in the 1990s: the population of 30-49-year-olds peaked and is now depopulating as the crime- and addiction-prone baby boom sobers up or dies off and is replaced by more law-abiding younger generations.
· The exceptions to these larger trends:
- Homicide among adults 25 and older declined sharply. The reason appears to be stricter policing of domestic violence.
- Homicide and violent street crime rates more than doubled among impoverished youth (nearly all black, Latino, and Asian) in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. The reason was gang warfare over crack cocaine and other drug distribution markets in inner cities and older suburbs--many of whose drug customers were middle-aged suburbanites. This temporary violence wave, which peaked in 1994 and has since fallen sharply, did not affect middle-class and wealthier youth (nearly all white).
Of particular note, the murder arrest rate among children under age 13 (tomorrow’s supposed “teenage criminals”) reached its lowest level in 2000-2002 since records were first kept in 1964, 60% below the child murder arrest rate of the 1960s and 1970s.
Could these complex realities more diametrically challenge the simplistic, anti-youth scare campaign crime experts, major institutions, politicians, law enforcement agencies, and the news media have perpetrated?
The Grain of Truth
The “youth violence” hoax has been simply constructed. It consists of juxtaposing the statistics of the temporary surge in homicide among a relatively small number of impoverished, mostly inner-city youth from 1985 to 1994 with anecdotes of sensational but rare crimes by affluent, suburban youth to manufacture the myth of widespread teenage mayhem. The terror campaign against teenage “superpredators” and white suburban “stone killers” is a concocted crisis.
Homicide. Let’s begin with an analysis of what is not a lie. Table 1 presents the level and change in juvenile and adult homicide rates in the last 30 years in five-year increments through 2002, with the most recent years (2000-2002) shown separately.
Juvenile teens show by far the largest increases in murder arrest through the early 1990--in fact, murder rates fell sharply among over-30 age groups. In particular, the murder rate among juveniles more than doubled from its low point in the early 1980s (1980-84 in Table 1) to its peak in the early 1990s (1990-94). It then declined sharply. Note that by 2000, the youth homicide rate was lower than at any time since the early 1960s. Even with the slight rise in 2001, this trend hardly warranted panicked claims that today’s kids gun each other down with abandon while baby boom youth (today’s parents) merely squabbled and scuffled. By 1998-2001, the juvenile homicide rate had fallen to a level lower than average for the early 1970s.
The increase in homicide by a small number of youths from 1985 to 1994 was of concern and would have benefited from close analysis. Unfortunately, that concern was buried in a perspective-free rush by luminaries of all stripes to exploit it.
First, youth murderousness was wildly exaggerated. Television mobilecam-news viewers and those who took official scare-tactics seriously could be forgiven for not realizing that even in the peak year for teenage homicide, 1994, the FBI reported that offenders under age 18 committed only 10.5% of U.S. murders. (In 2001, the figure had dropped to 5.0%). The reasons for this murder increase among a narrow segment of the teen population will be explored later.
Second, homicide is an extremely rare crime which can’t be held up as evidence of the violence or criminality of an entire generation. (Law enforcement agencies use 10-17 as the juvenile population at risk. However, 10-13-year-olds commit very few homicides; the rate for age 14-17 alone would be slightly less than double the rates shown in Table 1, still lower than for age 18-29 but higher than for ages over 30). Even so, the increase in youth homicide rates from the early 1980s to the early 1990s represents a change in behavior by seven (12.8 minus 5.9) youths in 100,000--not exactly the generation-wide murder eruption portrayed by the press, gangs of panicky Ph.D.s, or pop authors such as Ed Humes. Humes declared in his acclaimed 1996 book on the Los Angeles juvenile justice system, No Matter How Loud I Shout:
Fear of our children is a fear well grounded in fact, as juvenile crime, particularly violent crime, has ripped through our cities and suburbs like a new and deadly virus... children are killing children, violently, inhumanly, forcing one another to duck bullets, spraying whole crowds in order to take out a single intended victim, transforming urban American teenagers into the psychological equivalent of war orphans.
Humes’ frightening (and self-indulgent) hysteria is of the sort that contributes to lock-up-and-execute sentiments such as Proposition 21, not the liberal reforms he claims to support. Had Humes bothered to check standard crime sources readily available at the time he authored his book, he would have found felonies and violent crime, including homicide, had been declining rapidly among Los Angeles youth for years. (Example: 407 L.A. youths were arrested for murder in 1990, plummeting to 232 in 1994, the same rate as in the mid-1970s). But Humes’ florid prose stems from anecdotes and second-hand quotes, the bane of many modern authors on youth topics.
The facts, as will be seen, are complex and don’t lend themselves to sound-bite simplicities. Nationwide in 1994, 3,900 youths under age 18 were arrested for murder, representing 1/40th of 1% of those age 14-17, 1/6th of 1% of the youths arrested for any crime, and 4/10ths of 1% of those arrested for any serious crime. Even these are overstatements, since a two-year tracking study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in 1997 found only half the youths arrested for murder were convicted. This means that juvenile homicide rates reported by crime authorities are likely to be approximately double the true number. Statements such as Humes’, unfortunately common in the media and official forums, stirring up fear of all young people for the misdeeds of a tiny sliver of their number reveal more about their authors’ personal prejudices than about kids.
Violent crime. Table 2 shows arrests for violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) by age group over the last quarter century. Prior to 1970, FBI crime reports become increasingly incomplete, particularly for younger age groups, and not comparable to those of the present. (Pronouncements by blue ribbon panels such as the American Medical Association/National Association of State Boards of Education’s 1990 Code Blue report comparing 1990s juvenile arrest rates with those from sketchy FBI reports of the 1950s to create breathless claims of a “30-fold increase,” constitute academic dereliction that can only be called criminal).
Table 2 changes the picture considerably. The rate of arrests for violent felonies rose by 18% among juveniles over the last quarter century. But juveniles were hardly alone. Violent crime rates also rose for every older age group; most notably, by 55% for the 30-49 age group--the parents. In fact, the violent crime arrest rate for the 30-49 age group rose faster than that of youths for four of the five comparison periods. These completely unmentioned trends also will be examined later.
Although violent crimes are 50 times more common than homicide, they remain rare. Even at its peak, only one-half of 1% of youths were arrested in a year for a violent offense (in 2002, the rate was around one-third of 1%). Some were repeat offenders, and many fewer than those arrested were convicted. Even at its largest, the increase in “youth violence” arrests represents a change in behavior by fewer than 200 in 100,000, or 0.2%, of youths. Violent crime arrest trends also do not demonstrate generation-wide behavior trends.
And Now: Official Perjury
We have now reached the end of what is true about the “youth crime hoax:” There was a statistical increase in murder and violent crime arrests affecting a small fraction of juveniles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Let us now go on to what is not true, which includes not only the misleading way experts presented this increase to the public and to policy makers, but patently false statements hyping the supposedly epidemic criminality of the entire younger generation.
When the increase in violence arrests among youths is broken down by crime (Table 3 and Figure 1), a surprise emerges. Most kinds of violent crime by youths are not higher today. Compared to 25 years ago, rates of homicide, rape, and robbery have declined.
Rape and murder are the most serious, but also very rare, crimes which together comprise less than 10% of violence arrests. Their rates have not much changed, fluctuating between 17 and 35 per 100,000 youths over the period; in 2002, they stood at 17 per 100,000. In 2000, 2001, and 2002, murder, rape, and robbery rates among youths were lower than those of a quarter century ago.
The offenses that drive the felony violent crime rate are robbery (one-third of violence arrests) and aggravated assault (more than half). Between 85% and 95% of the growth in “youth violence” over the last 25 years, regardless of which period is compared, is due to the growth in aggravated assault arrest. Arrests for misdemeanor (simple) assault among juveniles rose even faster over the period, more than tripling from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. For all types of violent crime, then, 93% of the growth in teenage violence arrests in the last 30 years consisted of simple assault, 19% consisted of aggravated assault, offsetting declines in the remaining three offenses, murder, rape, and robbery (murder and rape are combined to produce a visible trend line).
Thus, all of the increased violence involves assaults, and four-fifths of the increase in assault arrests are for the least serious, misdemeanor type. What might cause this? Perhaps assault arrests rose because teenagers actually are more inclined to attack people today than in the past. Alternatively, maybe police are making arrests today for incidents like schoolyard fistfights or shoving matches that used to result only in warnings or informal action in past decades. Or some combination of the two may be at work.
Assuming the first alternative--that the arrest increase reflects a real increase in teenage violence--raises a strange paradox. Authorities continually claim that, unlike the halcyon days of yore when teenage fights involved fists and bruises, guns are now the teenage “fight finishers,” with lethal result. In the words of Jean Hellwege, senior editor of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s journal, “juveniles are committing crimes at younger ages, and the crimes they commit are increasingly more violent.”
Hellwege’s statement is heard in every generation. It replays, along with many past declarations, the 1956 Youth in Danger report by U.S. Senate investigators (“Younger and younger children, some of them as young as eight or nine, are becoming involved in crimes of greater and greater violence, even in the most wanton and senseless of murders.”). There is no evidence, then or now, that teenage criminals are getting younger. In 1945, the average age of teenage murder arrestees was 17.8; in 1960, 17.6; in 1975, 17.7; in 1990, 17.7; in 2002, 18.0.
Further, if the first half of Hellwege’s sentence is true, the second--that juvenile crimes are becoming more violent--must be false. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were 19 murders for every 1,000 teenage assaults; in the 1980s, 13; in the 1990s, 12; and in 2002, five. Rape, robbery, and felony assault also comprise a much smaller proportion of total juvenile violence arrests today (fewer than one-third) than 20-30 years ago (more than half). So if teenagers indeed are committing more violent crimes, their crimes are becoming not more but dramatically less violent. That is, a teenage fight is much less likely to result in a bullet-riddled or bludgeoned corpse in the 1990s than it was in the 1960s or 1970s.
The second possibility is that teenagers are not more inclined to assault today; rather, arrests have increased because police are more likely to haul teenagers in for fights and other incidents of minor violence, just as police arrest more adults today for domestic violence, than they did in the past. University of California, Berkeley, criminologist Frank Zimring argues this is the most plausible reading of the data. First, teenage arrests for the more serious offenses of murder, rape, and robbery, while cyclical, are not appreciably higher today than in the 1970s. Second, arrests of adults for assault increased in the 1980s even more than for teenagers, even though adult murder arrests did not increase. This suggests that it was more proactive policing of assault, not a real increase in assault, that accounts for the increase in teenage and adult violence arrests.
In turn, this analysis of the data suggests three implications. First, teenagers are not more violent today. Second, the small fraction who are violent commits more homicides than the violent fraction of the past. Finally, it would show that arresting more kids for assault does not deter murder, since murder rates also increased in the late 1980s. Fistfights and killings are largely unrelated events.
This view of teen violence is echoed by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s 1999 report. After OJJDP puzzled over the fact that violent crime arrests, overwhelmingly for assault, were so much higher in 1997 than in 1980 even though the most definitive measure of crime, the National Crime Victimization Survey, showed no higher levels of victim-reported violence by juveniles or adults in 1997 than in 1980. Further, simple and aggravated assault arrests increased while robbery and rape did not, and violence arrests among females increased more than among males. (Predictably, the latter development touched off another analysis-lite official-press panic proclaiming the “new violent juvenile girl”).
It is more likely the “violent crime increase” results from increased police proclivity to make arrests for domestic violence and for youth offenses “that in past years may have been classified as status offenses (e.g., incorrigibility)” but “can now result in an assault arrest.” Thus, increased “arrest statistics are not always related to an increase in crime.” The larger conclusion is clear: while a small, clearly delineated segment of the youth population was more inclined to homicide in the early 1990s, the vast majority of today’s teenagers today are not more violent.
Whether crime is rare or common has important implications for deciding what to do about it. Rare crimes are best addressed by measures such as counseling targeted at individuals whose personal circumstances (i.e., growing up in violent families and engaging in aggressive acts at an early age) strongly suggest a propensity to violence. Large-scale problems are best addressed by general measures such as curfews or bans on firearms. It makes sense then, when looking for generational trends, to focus on the common crimes committed by many people rather than rare crimes committed by the few.
Felony crime. Exploring the criminality of a generation rather than simply a small part of it requires analysis of rates of arrest for the major felonies termed Part I, or “index,” crimes by the FBI. These are murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault (violent) and burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson (property). Index felonies are used as a standard measure of crime because they are consistently defined and tabulated by various jurisdictions and over time.
However, index felony rates are biased against youths for two big reasons. First, they do not include major felonies overwhelmingly committed by adults, such as check/credit card forgery, embezzlement, and drug peddling. Second, more than older age groups, youths are arrested in far greater numbers than they are convicted. The arrest rates shown in Table 4 for youths thus are artificially high in terms of looking at the numbers of those who actually turned out to be guilty.
The view that the younger generation as a whole is not more criminal today is reinforced by trends in arrest for index offenses. Table 4 shows the rates and change in rates for all Part I, or index, felonies over the last quarter century.
Note that by 2000-2002, youths show a lower rate of index felony arrests than at any time in the previous 30 years, while, for adult age groups, arrest rates generally increased. Changing the years compared does not much change the pattern--youths (as a generation) and the elderly show the least increase (or biggest decrease) in their rates of serious crime over the last 30 years, while age 30-49 shows the biggest increase in rates by far. Crime reports before 1970 become steadily less complete, so that rates prior to that year are hard to compare to today’s.
Taken together, what do these trends show? First, the general youth population is not becoming more crime prone. In fact, the picture for serious youth crime is more favorable than for any other age group, most especially their parents (ages 30+). Second, trends show that there was a unique increase in murder and a far-from-unique increase in violent crime among a narrow segment of the youth population to a peak in the early 1990s, the latter comparable to increases among other age groups.
The “youth violence hoax,” then, stems from two egregious official and media untruths: the claim that teenagers have become more violent while older society is more pacific, and the claim that the increase in violence and homicide among teens in the 1980s and 1990s was a generalized “youth” phenomenon. As will be shown later, what we call “youth violence” has nothing to do with youth. It is a socioeconomic phenomenon.
Replacing Fear of the Yellow Peril with the Youth Peril
Bad enough that America has to suffer young people, crime authorities ceaselessly chorus: there’s going to be a lot more of them. The population of “crime prone” 14-17-year-olds has grown and will continue to grow, from 13.3 million in 1990 to 16.5 million by 2005. Parisian criers announcing Panzer divisions rolling through the low countries couldn’t have sounded more panicked over the impending invasion.
As already shown, official statistics reveal no reasonable evidence for panicky assertions of a juvenile “crime storm,” nor have they shown any such evidence for 25 years. First, according to the FBI, even in the peak year, 1994, juveniles accounted for 10.5% of homicides and 14.2% of all violent crime. Given the small proportion of crime juveniles commit, even considerable growth in juvenile violence would not amount to a national crime wave. But no matter; the chief qualification for a 1990s “crime expert” seems to be not having looked at a standard crime report in decades.
Second, nation-wide, the teenage population ages 14-17 had already completed most of its fearsome growth, up 2.9 million (22%) since 1990, reaching a horrifying 16.2 million by 2000. Yet during that period, all forms of crime (especially homicide) declined rapidly:
- violent crime, down 400,000 (or -32% by population-adjusted rate)
- murder, down 7,900 (-41%)
- rape, down 12,400 (-22%)
- robbery, down 231,000 (-44%)
- aggravated assault, down 144,000 (-24%)
- major property crime, down 2.5 million (-29%).
- all major index crime, down 2.9 million (-29%)
All of these offenses had risen from 1984 to 1992, a period when the teenage population was FALLING rapidly. The main reason: for the last 25 years, U.S. and California crime trends have been driven not by teenagers, but by sharp increases among aging baby boomers.
Another encouraging and overlooked matter, as Table 5 shows, was that the nation’s biggest drops (or lowest rate of increase) in serious crime occurred among pre-teens 12 and younger. The level for 1995-99 shown in the chart was boosted by a puzzling spike in murder arrests in 1995 (110 that year, more than double any other year of the 1990s). The major states for which I have reports, California, New York, Pennsylvania and others, report only one or two that year, leaving the possibility of a misprint or peculiar case in which some jurisdiction arrested dozens of kids in one incident.
Put another way, in the 1960s and early 1970s, a child aged 12 and younger was arrested for murder every 5.4 days. In the 1990s, one every 8.1 days. And in 2002, the most recent year tabulated, one every 16.5 days. It is not only NOT true that today’s children are more murderous than those of the past; it is a grotesque reversal of fact.
The most recent five years, the 1998-2002 period, represents the lowest five-year rate of murders by children under age 13 in decades--40% lower than their rates in the mid-1960s, when records for that age group were first (and probably less completely) reported, and 60% below the level of the 1970s. Yet, except for a few brave “Schoolhouse Hype” reports by my Justice Policy Institute colleagues, name one lobby, academic expert, agency spokesperson, institutional authority, or politician who mentioned the fact, clearly evident from standard FBI reports, that today’s grade-schoolers are substantially less homicidal.
Further, the rate of index felonies among children 12 and younger was at its lowest level in 2000, 2001, and 2002 in at least 35 years, 40% lower on average than in previous decades. Finally, the growth in violent crime arrests was less for children under age 13 than for any other age group. These 1990s youngsters were the “superpredators” self-serving hysterics from conservative William Bennett to Justice Department authority James Alan Fox to liberal Janet Reno were warning would deluge the nation with a “crime storm.”
The truth of these clear trends did not even dent the careening fear campaign. In April 2000, among many “post-Columbine” lunacies, New Jersey school administrators suspended several first graders for pointing fingers at each other on the playground during a cops-and-robbers simulation. Administrators defended their actions by claiming “real violence” was threatened, citing the “spate of school shootings.” Florida police arrested three six-year-old girls they claimed had drawn a map (...well, not exactly a “map,” which first-graders can’t draw. but some kind of scribbling, authorities demurred) of where they planned to murder other girls. Reporters, checking nil, quoted cops and a parent branding the supposed murder plot “scary” and declared, “this didn’t happen ten years ago.” Absolute idiocy. Turning to the facts, in 1969, 66 children ages 12 or younger were arrested for murder. In 1979, 43. In 1989, 48. In 2002, the most recent year reported, 24, among the lowest on record.
Applying these “play cops and robbers and you’re expelled” standards to times past, just about every primary school cherub of the 1950s and 1960s would have been pitched out of school, branded a violent criminal, and shoveled into psychiatric treatment. And there would have been more justification, since children back then were more murderous (three to four grade-schoolers in a million killed back then, compared to fewer than two in a million today).
Why Has Middle-Aged Crime Risen?
One of the most searing lessons from examining data sources first-hand is that absolutely nothing official/media/expert sources say about youth trends can be believed. The opposite of established portrayals is more likely to be true, and the drug issue is no exception.
Having ignored America’s most compelling crime trend--the explosion in arrests among adults ages 30-49--it is not surprising that established interests also would ignore the causes of the trend. Table 6 provides the most likely reason serious crime has skyrocketed since 1975 in this older group: rising drug abuse. Drug overdose deaths are not the only measure of drug abuse, but they are the best measure that is reliably tabulated over time. Their trends parallel trends shown in other, later measures such as emergency hospital treatment, testing of arrest suspects, and treatment for drug abuse.
Among teenagers, drug deaths dropped dramatically from the late 1960s and early 1970s to the early 1980s. Meanwhile, America’s drug abuse problem is centered, overwhelmingly, in aging baby boomers. Since the mid-1970s, baby boom drug death rates have more than doubled, and the category of drug death most likely to indicate addiction, accidental overdose, quadrupled. Note that once the War on Drugs cranked up, death rates from drugs for the teen through 20-year-old group halted their previous decline and have been static. Meanwhile drug death rates for those over 30 skyrocketed. Middle-aged deaths from heroin, cocaine, pharmaceutical drugs, and drugs mixed with alcohol show the biggest increases. Today, 90% of America’s hospital emergency patients and overdose deaths from abusing hard drugs are 30 and older.
Unlike violence, homicide, and gun statistics, drug abuse is not more prevalent in low-income groups. Just the opposite. California is one of the few states that kept death statistics by race and Hispanic ethnicity from 1985 through 2002, a period in which 44,000 died from overdoses. Despite persistent, popular claims that young people and minorities show higher rates of drug abuse, non-Hispanic whites show higher rates of drug abuse death at all age levels than people of color. Just as white adults ages 30 and older show the biggest increases in felony arrest, so they are the only group to show an increase in drug abuse deaths over the last decade--as well as suffering the highest drug abuse rates (Table 7).
Addiction increases rates of violent and, especially, property crime to acquire drugs or money to get drugs. A 1997 National Institute of Justice report found older arrestees (over age 35) were two to 10 times more likely to test positive for cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine than were teenage arrestees. In March 2000, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy finally admitted drug deaths and drug-related hospital episodes had reached record levels in the most recent years then tabulated, 2000 and 2001, with especially large increases recorded for 2001. The report conceded that five million drug abusers needed immediate treatment, more than twice as many as were receiving it.
America’s raging drug and crime crisis among older addicts has been exacerbated by the disastrous War on Drugs. From first czar, William Bennett’s, strategy plan in 1989 to the present, drug-war policies increasingly have emphasized neglecting addicts who suffer from their supposed immorality, punishing attacks on casual marijuana users who are least likely to cause problems, and interdiction and imprisonment rather than treatment. As now constituted, the War on Drugs represents a serious impediment to effective strategies to reduce violence and other crime.
Meanwhile, the most remarkable counter-trends over the last decade and a half are the low rates and declining trends in drug death among young people, especially those of color. The War on Drugs, which has made fear of young people its primary message, has not pointed out this surprising fact. Unfortunately, neither have groups dedicated to reforming drug policy, which have dropped the ball again and again in their failure to publicize realistic, hard-hitting alternative information to combat the drug war’s fear campaign.
Manufacturing the Teen Drug Crisis
After reading statements and communicating directly with drug policy reform groups over the past five years, I’m convinced that like drug warriors, reformers have no interest in publicizing America’s real trends in drug abuse and crime. For the purpose of attacking each other, both sides have invested heavily in depicting these issues as problems of young people. An example among many is the spring-summer 2000 suburban-teen-heroin scare, the latest in three decades of government and treatment industry hoaxes.
There is no evidence of any significant teenage heroin problem--not by deaths, not by hospital emergency cases, not by addiction treatment records, not by arrest records, not by drug use surveys. The latest nationwide government figures in every instance show this:
- of 4,800 deaths related in any way to heroin in 1999, just 33 were youths;
- of 93,519 hospital emergency cases for heroin in 2002, only 813 were youths;
- of 312,000 admissions to addiction treatment for heroin and other opiates in 2001, just 3% were under age 20;
- of 800 Californians who died from heroin overdoses in 1999, exactly nine were under age 20;
- even for teenaged boys arrested for criminal offenses, surely a high-risk population, drug tests on 4,000 in 23 cities found only a couple of dozen (fewer than 1%) had used heroin or other opiates.
Why such low casualty tolls given the purer, cheaper forms of heroin widely available? Few teenagers use heroin. Of 23,000 12-17-year-olds surveyed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2002, only 90 had every tried heroin, and a minuscule 45 had used heroin some time in the previous year. Of 12,500 high school seniors surveyed by Monitoring the Future in 2003, only about 50 had used heroin as often as once a month.
Nevertheless, War on Drugs profiteers needed a teenage heroin crisis, and so they cooked one up. Suddenly headlines rumbled through the ever-herdable news media: “Teenage Girls Are Increasingly Falling Prey To Narcotic In Purer, More Mainstream, Sniffable Form” (USA Today, May 9), “As Cocaine Declines, Heroin Use Rises among Suburban Teens” (Rocky Mountain News, May 7; CNN, May 9):
WASHINGTON-While overall drug abuse appears to have leveled off in recent years, government agencies and treatment clinics say there has been a startling increase in heroin use among suburban teens in the last decade.
“Heroin is back, it’s cheaper, more potent and more deadly than ever,” said Bob Weiner, an aide to White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey.
ABC News, which has formally teamed up with drug-war interests such as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America it should be covering at arms length, produced a pure-grade malarkey report, “Heroin Ravages Young Users,” on July 10:
As the price of heroin on the street continues to drop and its purity rises, health experts say that teenagers and young adults are finding the drug more attractive. In a decade, the average age of first-time heroin users has dropped dramatically, from 27.4 in 1988 to 17.6 in 1997--the youngest average since 1969.
People scared off by the thought of injecting the drug, young people--and increasingly more girls--will try heroin now by snorting it, experts say. And the drug that was once thought of as the scourge of the inner city is becoming ever more popular with other segments of society, particularly America’s small towns and suburbs.
“The idea that it only happens on a street corner in some godforsaken part of Manhattan is just wrong,” said Terry Horton, the medical director and vice president of Phoenix House, a national drug treatment organization.
“We have young, white suburban kids coming into the inner city neighborhoods and into the needle exchanges,” adds Rick Curtis, a professor at John Jay School of Criminal Justice, who is conducting a five-year study of heroin use in New York City. “They are not only using heroin but they are using it in fairly risky ways.”
From pockets of the country, like New Castle County, Del., where 71 heroin-related overdoses, including 10 fatalities, occurred in the first half of 1999, to central Florida, Carroll County, Md. and Chimayo, NM (see Part II, tomorrow), heroin has taken its toll on young users.
In 1997 in Plano, one of the nation’s most affluent suburbs, teenagers were snorting or ingesting (in the form of a capsule) a new drug they knew only as chiva, said Carl Duke, a spokesman with the Plano Police Department.
“Kids hooked each other on it at parties and they didn’t even know what it was,” he said. It turned out to be a purer form of heroin than previously available, marketed by dealers as a new party drug.
In places like Portland, the price to get high has more than halved in the last 20 years to about $20, even as incomes have risen, making the drug much more affordable to the city’s young people.
“You can work a minimum wage job and scrape a little on the side and be a heroin addict and not do a lot of crime to support your addiction,” said Gary Oxman, a health officer in Portland’s Multnomah County and another contributor to the CDC report.
And in Seattle, 723 people have died of heroin overdoses since 1994, the year heroin-addicted Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and brought national attention to the so-called “heroin chic trend.”
Where the thought of heroin might horrify other generations, Horton said, many young people today have a sort of “generational amnesia” about the drug. “Kids don’t seem to have the sense of the danger,” he said.
In Portland and Seattle, the popularity of heroin in the mid-1990s as a recreational drug and its “heroin chic” image--the gaunt, edgy look of models laid out in fashion magazines--helped establish the drug’s foothold among the young in those cities, health officials said.
“It used to be that you really graduated to [heroin] after years of heavy abuse,” said Gail Nettels, an English teacher at a California high school for students who have had problems with substance abuse.
“Now, it’s almost like they will try it right away. It is the only thing left that has a mystique. Heroin is one of those things where they can really say ‘Nobody understands me. My problems are too big. I’m going to shoot up heroin.’ Sometimes I think it has a lot to do with the melodrama of being a teenager.”
The above statements are complete fiction. Amid claims that heroin increasingly was “killing younger users,” ABC News and its “experts” left something out: all of its scary numbers referred to older users, not teenagers or young adults. Of 447 people who died of heroin overdoses in Portland from 1995 through 1998, none was a teenager; in Seattle, only two of 585 heroin deaths were teens. In both cities, as nationally, 70% of heroin deaths were over age 35. Which means the assertions by the Phoenix House official that heroin “would horrify” older generations and that today’s youth suffer from a “generational amnesia” are beyond absurd--today’s kids are seeing more adults die from heroin than any previous generation. As are the claims from self-interested treatment-center spokespersons, whose own records show heroin addicts have aged rapidly over the last dozen years even as they incessantly have told the press that addicts were “getting younger and younger.”
The difficulty both drug-war and drug-reform interests face in addressing who is abusing heroin, committing crimes while under the influence of heroin or to get more, getting arrested, and going to prison is that the dragon-chasers are not the people these interests would like them to be. California’s statistics illustrate: white, non-Hispanic adults ages 30 to 59 comprise one-fourth of the state’s population over age 10 but account for more than half of its heroin deaths--the highest rates of any race or age group. Thus, both drug-war and drug-reform lobbies float their charges and counter-charges on the fiction that the heroin scourge is among young people and people of color.
The summer 2000 epidemic of teen-heroin stories by ABC News and other media was prompted by a forthcoming Centers for Disease Control report on increased heroin deaths in the Pacific Northwest. When the CDC’s findings emerged in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on July 21, 2000, it dumped the news hype in the trash. In Seattle, the median age of dead heroin overdosers was 40. For Portland’s heroin deaths,
Almost half (46.8%) were in persons ages 45-54 years; 23.1% aged 35-44 years; 22.9% aged 25-34 years; and 4.9% aged <25 years. The median age for males (40.0 years) and females (37.5 years) were similar.
ABC News issued a quick reversal in its July 20 national report, admitting up front (but without correcting its earlier teen-smack story) that heroin decedents were nearly all ages 25-54. Also rendered clownish, and not for the first time when hiply hyping youth pathologies without checking basic facts, was Rolling Stone, which declared in an early (May 30, 1996) piece of junk journalism that Seattle’s “Junkie Town” heroin epidemic was centered in teens and young adults.
Most troubling, instead of forcefully challenging the drug-war fiction, groups dedicated to reforming drug laws exploited it in order to push their own agenda. After decrying Clinton drug czar General Barry McCaffrey’s “unending barrage of weekly horror stories,” Drug Sense Weekly editor Mark Greer of the Drug Sense/Media Awareness Project joined in: “McCaffrey seems consistently and blissfully unaware that it is the drug war which he so ardently supports that is solely responsible for the increase in heroin use among our youth.”
Similarly, Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the San Francisco office of the Lindesmith Center, a drug reform research group that produced the excellent Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts (1997), makes cogent arguments for why drug education should focus on the reality of young people’s experiences and cut out the scare tactics. However, she continues the unreal argument that the contrived “messages” of drug education are the big determinants of teenage drug use: “Today’s increased purity and availability of ‘hard drugs,’ coupled with teenagers’ refusal to heed warnings they don’t trust, have resulted in increased risk of fatal overdose such as those we’ve witnessed among the children of celebrities and in affluent communities like Plano, Texas,” she writes.
But the reality is that risk or not, there has been no increase in fatal overdoses among young people! And this is remarkable, given the increasingly potent forms of heroin, speed, cocaine, and pharmaceutical drugs widely available today and the natural inexperience of teenagers with drugs. Yet, because both drug-war and drug-reform interests choose to misrepresent adolescents as chronic risk-takers driven by external “messages” rather than internal rationality based on their own circumstances and experiences, neither warriors or reformers display the slightest curiosity as to why teenagers display such low risks--despite the crucial implications for how society should address drugs. Further, the refusal of both drug-war (including drug-education) and drug-reform groups to honestly face the adult hard-drug crisis that millions of teenagers (especially the ones most at risk of drug abuse) see every day has rendered both sides’ politically-sanitized “messages” irrelevant to the decisions these teenagers make about drugs.
The result is that just as with politicians, drug-war and drug-reform interests compete to charge each other with not doing enough to stop teenage drug use. In a 2000 web posting, the reformist Common Sense for Drug Policy accused McCaffrey’s Office on National Drug Control Policy of soft-pedaling teenage hard-drug use!
This decline (in marijuana use in 1998) masked a continuing rise in hard drug use by our youth. For instance, the percentage of high school seniors reporting lifetime marijuana use dropped by 0.5%, but the percentage of high school seniors reporting lifetime crack use increased by 0.5%. Twice as many students reported using heroin by the 8th grade in 1998 as was reported in 1991. Nearly three times as many students reported using crack by the 8th grade for the same time period. Exchanging marijuana use for crack and heroin is clearly not the type of trade-off that most parents would like to see. The ONDCP’s failure to mention any of these significant issues in their official press statement cheats parents, educators and journalists out of their ability to understand the dimensions of adolescent drug use.
“Lifetime” use is not an important measure, since a large majority who used a drug at some time do not use it later. Further, with the same disingenuousness that the industry-friendly Partnership for a Drug-Free America fails to mention alcohol, pharmaceutical, and tobacco abuse, the marijuana-decriminalization lobby Common Sense for Drug Policy omits the fact that the same 1998 survey shows high school seniors 12 and 25 times more likely to have used marijuana than crack or heroin, respectively. Given 20 years of skyrocketing heroin and cocaine abuse among adults of the ages to be parents to teenagers (a crisis Common Sense still has not brought itself to frankly discuss), it would be unsurprising that some teenagers experiment with these drugs.
What is surprising is how low the numbers major surveys such as NIDA’s and Monitoring the Future find. The low percentages mean that a few dozen jokers among thousands of students surveyed can radically affect the numbers and create impressions of “increases” in use. When it comes to regular use, only tiny fractions (1% or fewer) of students claim to patronize heroin or coke even as often as once a month. Confirming low teenage drug abuse levels, death, hospital, and treatment records show teenage hard-drug casualties are very rare. These facts raise a troubling question: If drug reformers are going to blame the War on Drugs for everything teenagers do with drugs, aren’t they obliged to credit it for minuscule levels of teenage drug abuse?
As this is written (March 2004), the teen-drug scares continue over the dance-club drug Ecstasy (MDMA) and the pain reliever Oxycontin (oxycodone). Major-network newsmagazines and the mainstream press have united with prosecutors, the drug war, and private interests to depict these drugs as the latest youth scourge. Yet again, charlatanism prevails, drawing even official rebuke. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s fine report, Club Drugs, issued in December 2001, pointed out that deaths and hospital emergencies attributed to Ecstasy were too rare to tabulate accurately. Fewer than 70 deaths in the last six years in any way involved Ecstasy (a number equivalent to two days of adult drunken driving fatalities), and nearly all of these also involved more dangerous drugs. Limited age data indicate very few Ecstasy abusers are teenagers. SAMHSA’s unusually blunt 2000 report noted that the only reason its researchers conducted a special study of a relatively insignificant issue such as club drugs was media misinformation (a point the few media citations of the report failed to mention):
Under ordinary circumstances, we would not report numbers this small. They are reported here for two purposes: first, to calm speculation and second, to correct recent media errors related to these data.
While the long-term effects on brain seratonin levels of prolonged, intensive Ecstasy use remain a cause of concern, the drug’s patrons overwhelmingly are in their 20s, not teens, and the vast majority of users take the drug only occasionally. For example, of the 8.3% of high school seniors who told the 2003 Monitoring the Future survey that they’d tried Ecstasy, only 1.3% had used it in the past month.
The fear campaign surrounding Oxycontin and youths is equally unconscionable. While newsmagazines such as Dateline NBC’s inflammatory December 12, 2001, edition, depict the drug as sweeping the suburban and rural teen population (a yawner if true, since this theme is constantly invoked), the facts are the typical opposite: the drug’s abusers, overwhelmingly, are over 30. The latest Drug Abuse Warning Network report shows fewer than 5% of the 11,000 people hospitalized for Oxycodone effects in 2000 were teens; five-sixths were 26 and older, and more than 60% were 35 and older. Creating a teen-drug crisis a week is a Drug War strategy the major media, recipients of tens of millions of dollars in drug-war advertising bribes, obsequiously hype.
So derelict has the War on Drugs been in confronting the middle-aged drug crisis disrupting families and communities that teenagers have been left on their own to create their own drug policy from observing what happens to adults. Their response, as a generation, makes more sense than the youth-as-commodity politics of the drug debaters: most youths abstain or use drugs very rarely, they avoid harder drugs such as heroin, and they use milder drugs such as beer and marijuana in moderation. National Institute of Justice authorities hit a crucial nail on the head: “Researchers call this discrepancy (the much lower rates of drug abuse among younger users) the ‘big brother syndrome,’ in which younger children shun a drug after seeing its devastating effect on older users.” (Previously, of course, researchers had insisted youths, not adults, comprised the real drug problem). As important as this “big brother syndrome” (interesting word choice) is to understanding and reversing drug-related crime, no one’s agenda seems to profit from studying it.
Their common exploitation of youths as mere commodities, as ammunition to attack the other side, explains why neither drug warriors nor drug reformers can admit that teenage drug trends are surprisingly healthy. Therefore, astonishing realities about the lack of teenage drug abuse must be steadfastly denied in order to preserve drug-debate talking points, and the real drug crisis--the rising epidemic among white, middle-aged abusers of heroin and other hard drugs--is overlooked as inconvenient. While drug reform interests (with a few notorious exceptions) haven’t sunk to the Drug War’s horror-story-a-week (to paraphrase Greer), the fact is that both sides rely on growing fear and falsification toward young people. And that has direct implications for the failure of varied interests to address the true trends in crime and their causes.
There is nothing “caring” or “adult” about today’s climate toward “youth violence.” It is cruel, exploitative, and, as will be shown, riddled with self-serving myth.
Who do we blame? Joe Citizen? It’s difficult for the public to care about what it doesn’t hear about or to form reasoned perspective amid intense media/official crusades. Clearly, as polls by Public Agenda have shown, the American adult is unusually angry at and fearful of teenagers and children, and public fear and inflammatory press feed each other.
Is the press the culprit? Yes, but with this qualification: after a decade of trying to persuade news reporters to at least air a more calming perspective, I believe today’s mainstream news media (with a few exceptions) simply aren’t capable of incorporating information challenging to official positions until a constituency supporting that challenge is built. The major media, like politicians, do not respond to information--even the most compelling information--but to constituencies. That people and businesses buy and advertise in media that confirm their beliefs and reject those that don’t is one psychological theory (cognitive dissonance) proven in the world of power and profit. Until a strong contingency supporting fairer, more truthful depictions of young people organizes, the media will continue to feature whatever formulaic images of youth major interest groups desire without regard to accuracy or objectivity. As the press merges, is bought by corporate giants, and concentrates in fewer hands, its unresponsiveness to all but large interests is likely to worsen.
Are politicians to blame? Guiltier, but also with extenuating circumstances. Like news reporters, politicians are swamped with a variety of issues they depend on sources and lobbyists to interpret. Like the media, politicians survive by popular approval. President Clinton ushered in an era of quantum leaps in the sophistication of politicians’ polling and focus-group research (Clinton’s regime conducted more public attitude measurement than all previous administrations combined), whelping a craven new world of expertly-designed pandering.
A new electoral imperative mandates that politicians take stern stands to suppress “youth violence” and ‘drugs” or face defeat by candidates who exploit public fears. I was surprised to see leftist Santa Cruz County district attorney Ron Ruiz, who (like most voters in this most radical county) has opposed draconian anti-crime initiatives, nevertheless promise in his March 2000 reelection campaign to prioritize vigorous efforts to “reduce youth violence.” This in a county of 250,000 people where only one juvenile has been arrested for murder in the last seven years, where Santa Cruz police report juveniles account for less than 10% of what little violent crime occurs, where there is no “youth violence” problem worth mentioning! Yet Ruiz’s stances on crime were perceived as too moderate by many voters, and he was defeated by a law’n’order challenger.
All the above bear some blame, but the greatest responsibility for the “youth violence” hoax rests with America’s academic and institutional world. Professors and institutional authorities are in ideal positions to confront prejudices created by politicians, the news media, and popular misinformation. In past decades, institutions and panels such as the Kerner Commission and the National Commission on Marihuana Laws issued bold reports that shook up prevailing doctrine.
But it is hard to imagine any of today’s major institutions such as the Carnegie Corporation, Child Trends, the Children’s Defense Fund, Kaiser Family Foundation, Rand, Packard, W.T. Grant, Ford, Stewart Mott, Brookings, Robert Wood Johnson, and other big players in youth policy staking out intrepid new ground. As will be shown, not only have major academic/institutional experts (and especially blue ribbon panels thereof) abjectly conformed to whatever political and popular anti-youth winds were howling, they have fanned fears of “youth violence” and other ills with famous pronouncements and “studies” that are so vacuous a Sociology 1 student would be chastised for authoring them.
John DiIulio, Princeton professor of politics and Brookings Institution expert, is quoted frequently and hailed by the press as the “crime doctor” for both parties. Here is how DiIulio, in 1995, developed his most influential prognostication of 300,000 more “adolescent super-predators” that mesmerized the media and terrified Congress and the president:
1. He began with a 1948 study of Philadelphia teenage boys showing 6% would become chronic offenders.
2. He applied this 6% proportion to Census estimates that the U.S. male population under age 18 would increase by five million from 1995 to 2005 (that is, he multiplied five million times 0.06).
3. DiIulio went public with the result: 300,000 more “adolescent super-predators murdering, raping, and robbing” by 2005.
But wait: these “under 18” superpredators would include not just teenagers, but grade-schoolers, toddlers, and newborns as well. When criminologist Frank Zimring pointed out that nuance, DiIulio revised his estimate to apply only to the increase in males ages 14-17: 30,000 more “superpredators” by 2005, not 300,000. A fairly drastic revision.
Moreover, since the baby boom generation had added 400,000 more felony property and violent offenders ages 30-49 to the nation’s real arrest toll in the previous decade without a whisper of concern by crime authorities, DiIulio’s hypothetical increase of 30,000 teenage “superpredators” (even if it materialized) would amount to but a blip. No matter. For most of the 1990s, the press and politicians have been transfixed by DiIulio’s roadshow.
Worse is James Alan Fox, Northeastern University’s Dean of the School of Criminal Justice and a consultant for the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Fox probably is the most quoted crime scholar in the press’s rolodex. “The overall drop in [violent] crime hides a grim truth,” Fox began his policy-setting 1996 report, Trends in Juvenile Violence: A Report to the Attorney General on Current and Future Rates of Juvenile Offending. “There are actually two crime trends in America--one for the young, one for the mature--which are moving in opposite directions.”
This statement in an august report by the nation’s leading crime-numbers authority to the nation’s highest law enforcement officer, represents blatant academic malpractice. Fox mixed up two incomparable, orange-apple measures: crimes reported to police, and arrests. Had he compared arrests (apples-apples), he would have had to admit violent crime has risen sharply among adults as well. (Fox later assembled an arrest table aggregating over-25 age groups into one mass whose violent crime trends were diluted by including senior citizens, still found a substantial increase in adult violence arrests, then ignored it).
Fox proceeded to forecast a “coming teenage crime storm” which would whip up 8,500 teenage murderers by year 2005. This is how he did it:
1. He used as his starting point “A” the murder rate among 14-17-year-olds in 1985 (7.0 per 100,000 population)--which just happened to be the lowest year in 25 years.
2. He used as his ending point “B” the murder rate among 14-17-year-olds in 1994 (19.1)--which just happened to be the peak year.
3. He drew a straight line between “A” and “B”.
4. He extended the straight line past 1994 to 2005, producing an estimate for each year which reached 58.5 per 100,000 youths ages 14-17 by 2005.
5. He multiplied his projected rates from this straight line by the estimated population age 14-17.
6. His projection: 4,400 murderers ages 14-17 in 1996, 5,500 by 1998, and 8,500 by 2005.
Fox’s and DiIulio’s projections got hysterical press play--“Scary Kids” (U.S. News), “Teenage Time Bombs” (Time), “Wild in the Streets” (Newsweek), the usual. It prompted introduction of Jurassic-mentality crime control bills to execute 14-year-olds, try 11-year-olds as adults, and jail youths arrested for serious offenses with adults all over the country. Former Congressman William McCollum (R-Florida), pushing his Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996, declared American youth are “are not children any more. They’re the most violent criminals on the face of the earth.”
Then, in 1997, after new 1995 figures showed his projection already far overblown, Fox drastically revised it downward. Assuming current trends stay flat, he predicted 3,700 murder arrests among age 14-17 in 1996, 3,900 in 1998, 4,200 in 2005.
What actually happened? In 1996, there were 2,900 murder arrests among age 14-17. In 1998, 2,100. WITHIN ONE YEAR OF ITS ISSUANCE, Fox’s projection was overstated by 50%. By 1998, just two years after his updated revision, his exaggeration had ballooned to 80%--and his original projection was now 250% over the top! The most recent figures for 2002 show about 1,400 juvenile murder arrests, one-fifth the total Fox predicted.
I hate to think of what Fox got paid to produce a ludicrous set of numbers it took me five minutes to replicate with a hand-held calculator. It wasn’t just that Fox was wrong, even though such immediate, tyrannosaurian wrongness would seem to demand exile from Beltway consultantship. The big problem was WHY Fox was so wrong.
Consider basic logic. For many mechanical processes (i.e., predicting how fast a bathtub will fill), a straight-line projection suffices. However, there are few human behaviors for which simply assuming the next 10 years will be like the last 10 produces anything but wrongness (or, in the case of projecting growth rates, exponential wrongness). Based on early-1970s growth trajectories, we should be buying roughly 30 trillion Pet Rocks and Mood Rings today.
If one has no choice but to use the past to project the future, past trends and their apparent causes must be charted carefully. In truth, murder rates by 14-17-year-olds do not follow a straight, upward line but show huge cycles, with high peaks in 1974, 1981, and 1994, and low troughs in between. Had Fox charted the cyclical pattern in homicide, he might have projected a repeat in the sharp downturn that occurred after every previous peak, which is what wound up happening. Even that would have been a dubious method, because there are many nuances to include other than simple past trends and population changes.
But Fox ignored the cycles. He simply took the year representing the nadir of juvenile murder rates, 1985, and used it as his base to project endless upward growth, like pinning one end of a teeter-totter to the ground and assuming one could head up its incline indefinitely to the moon. Had Fox (with equal and opposite invalidity) picked a high year like 1993 as the base and used a lower year like 1997 to project the future (like walking down the teeter-totter), as Zimring suggests, he would have predicted zero juvenile murderers by 2002 and the resurrection of hundreds of victims previously killed by juveniles every year afterward.
Fox’s massive mistake, then, was more than just a lapse of logic and math. It harbored an ethical transgression, one that (like many ethical transgressions in youth and crime policy) immensely profited his purpose. It would have been abysmally unhip politics to proclaim anything other than maximum alarmism until major interests retooled to claim credit for the crime downturn. Hired gowns become so because they prove adept at marrying scholarly credentials to zeitgeist.
As the homicide decline became undeniable, Fox was magnanimously confessing, “I was wrong.” Well, not exactly wrong. “As far as ‘bloodbath,’ the intention was to give a wake-up call,” he told Youth Today in April 1999. “And to those who say I was alarmist, maybe that was partly purposeful.” He and DiIulio deserve some credit for the decline in youth crime, he added. Why or how their poor scholarship and unwarranted alarmism deserve credit was never explained.
The blunt reality is that “demographic demonizers” who predict crime by whipping up terror against the existence and growth of unpopular population groups (youth, especially black and Latino youth, in DiIulio’s and Fox’s case) are wrong because their methods are founded in bigotry, not science. Fox’s misprediction of youth homicide trends was not his first messed-up study. In 1978, he released Forecasting Crime Data, which predicted trends for the 1980s and 1990s based on the proportion of nonwhite males ages 14-21 and the consumer price index. This was his premise:
The explosion in crime during the 1960s and 1970s was seen largely as the result of demographic shifts. The post-World War II babyboomers had then reached their late adolescence and early twenties, an age at which aggressive tendencies are the strongest.
This statement, one which forms the heart of “demographic determinism,” is easily disproven with about 10 minutes’ examination of crime data sources.
The crime “explosion” Fox refers to began in 1964 and peaked in 1975. Fox blamed the “baby boom cohort that as teenagers produced a crime wave in the 1970s.” True; violent crime arrest rates increased 150% among teenagers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. But violent crime rates also increased by 50% to 60% among adults over age 30. The upshot was that even during a period of rapid teenage population growth, teens accounted for only one-third, and juveniles for just 20%, of the nation’s increase in violence arrests--the same proportion as adults 30-49. Thus, while baby boom teenagers contributed strongly, they hardly “produced” the 1970s “crime wave;” adults contributed even more. And this was in an era in which domestic violence by adults seldom led to arrest.
Fox alternately blamed crime increases on “worsening conditions for our nation’s youths” and youth’s own innate “aggressive tendencies.’ The first contention is plausible; the second, which Fox emphasized more ringingly, is not. As even conservative UCLA crime luminary James Q. Wilson pointed out, the increases in violence and other arrests among youths during the 1960s tracked rapidly rising youth unemployment while adult unemployment fell, and the largest arrest increases were among minority youths most stressed by joblessness.
When the fact that youths of all colors suffer poverty and unemployment levels roughly twice those of adults of their respective races/ethnicities is factored out--the kinds of routine variables social scientists are supposed to account for--teenagers actually have lower violence arrest rates than adults in their 20s and 30s. Fox was correct about the bad conditions. He was wrong, as past demographic theorists had been, about the innate “aggressive tendencies” of whatever population group is being blamed for crime.
Fox’s wrong assumptions led to a wrong conclusion:
As the baby boom cohort matured into adulthood during the 1980s, taking on families, jobs, and other responsibilities, it was expected that the violent crime rate would subside. More to the point, the projected decline in the size of the population most prone to violence would likely translate into a reduced level of crime, violence, and disorder.
Fox predicted violent crime rates would decline from 1981 to a low in 1992, then rise, while property crime rates would level off through 1985, then rise rapidly.
“As it happened,” Fox later conceded, “a downturn in violent crime did occur, but it was short-lived.” A mildly-worded admission indeed. In reality, it would be difficult to imagine a forecast that was so monumentally wrong. Trends for both violent and property crime went just the opposite way than Fox predicted. Yet in his 1996 study, Fox lauds his 1978 prediction, which he declared would have been accurate if factors he did not consider hadn’t caused real trends to go astray.
Fox’s remedy to his 1978 mistake (which focused on demographics but included some economic and social factors) was to include ONLY the demographic factor in his 1996 report. The result was that instead of taking five years to disprove (as occurred with his 1978 forecast), Fox’s 1996 prediction “was wrong before the ink was dry,” Zimring said.
In his 1996 report, Fox summarized his “key statistical findings” on murder and violent crime:
From 1985 to 1994, the rate of murder by teens, ages 14-17, increased 172%. The rate of killing rose sharply for both black and white male teenagers but not for children.
The differential trends by age of offender for homicide generalize to other violent offenses. From 1989 to 1994, the arrest rate for violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) rose over 46% among teenagers, but only 12% among adults.
Here Fox pulled two more unscholarly shenanigans--(a) he compared a narrow segment of the youth population (age 14-17) with a broadly aggregated “adult” population (18-100+), and (b) he switched around the years compared to produce maximum juvenile disadvantage.
Had Fox stuck to 1994-vs.-1985 and split the adult cohort into separate age groups, he would have had to admit that adult violent crime rates also rose sharply. From 1985 to 1994, violent crime rates rose by 88% among ages 14-17, but were also up 46% among ages 18ñ29, up 68% among ages 30-39, up 46% among ages 40-49, and up 33% even among those over age 50. And had he chosen 1984 as his base year (instead of 1985) and 1995 as his comparison year (instead of 1994)--any base year is as valid as any other--the violence increase among ages 30-39 equaled that of juveniles. And if he chose any previous year as his base year, the violent crime rate increase among adults in the 30-49 age group exceeded that of youths.
Since Fox coincidentally picked the combination of years that was most unfavorable to juveniles for both comparisons, we can only conclude that he knew that other combinations would not sustain his case and thus avoided mentioning them. That is academic fraud. A major reason for presenting data in complete form, as I attempt in crime tables in this chapter for the 1970-2001 period, is to allow readers to reach different conclusions than mine from examining it, a possibility Fox clearly sought to thwart.
Still another problem is that Fox aggregates Latino and Anglo youth into the category “white.” When these are separated (see Table 8), it can be seen that from 1985 to 1994, homicide increased nine times faster among Hispanic and Asian youths (up 9.5 and 11.5 per 100,000 population, respectively), and 25 times faster among black youth (30.8), than among Anglo youth (1.2). As will be shown later, this was a socioeconomic, not racial, phenomenon.
So the correct description of trends is that there was (a) a unique increase in homicide among a small sector of impoverished youth, and (b) a rise in violent crime arrest among all age groups, worse for juveniles if 1985-90 are used as the base years, worse for 30-49-year-old adults if any other years are used. In fact, by any reasonable comparison over the last 30 years, adults in the 30-49 age group accounted for two to four times more of the growth in violent offenses than youths did--itself a bizarre development worthy of serious attention, since poverty rates had not increased among 30- and 40-agers as they had among youths.
However, Fox picks only offenses and time periods that make his case. He winds up with offerings to Democrats and Republicans alike, a mismash of sociology and prejudice:
Too many teenagers, particularly those in urban areas, are plagued with idleness and even hopelessness. A growing number of teens and preteens see few feasible or attractive alternatives to violence, drug use and gang membership. For them, the American Dream is a nightmare: There may be little to live for and to strive for, but plenty to die for and even to kill for.
The causes of the surge in youth violence since the mid-1980s reach, of course, well beyond demographics. There have been tremendous changes in the social context of crime over the past decade, which explain why this generation of youth is more violent than others before it. This generation of youth has more dangerous drugs in their bodies, more deadly weapons in their hands and a seemingly more casual attitude about violence.
The problem of kids with guns cannot be overstated... A 14-year-old armed with a gun is far more menacing than a 44-year-old with a gun. Although juveniles may be untrained in using firearms, they are more willing to pull the trigger without fully considering the consequences.
Who does Fox blame? Single-parent families, working parents, economic stress, and lack of parental supervision of kids, for starters. “The problem, of course, does not end nor the solution necessarily begin with the breakdown of the traditional family,” Fox adds. “...Children spend too little time engaged in structured activity with positive role models,” and too much time “hanging out or watching a few savage killings on television.” He deplores “our wholesale disinvestment in youth,” including “funding cuts in support programs for youth--from after-school care to recreation, from mentoring to education.”
In the end, Fox’s bad ideas overwhelm his good ones. Promoting investment in youth is vital, but for reasons discussed later, investment should be advocated because young people are valued citizens deserving of society’s resources, not because they’re going to massacre if we don’t open the purse strings. Nor are after-school programs a solution to fundamental causes of violence. These causes begin with poverty, unemployment, widespread domestic violence and child abuse that murders 2,000 to 3,000 children and youths every year (amazingly, Clinton-era reports barely mention this), and the massive middle-aged demand for hard drugs (particularly crack cocaine) which fueled the gang wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fox ignores these crucial points (unless by “idleness,” he means “unemployment”) and preaches unadorned fear of youth.
False fear. It is absolutely not true that today’s youth “have more dangerous drugs in their bodies.” As noted, every standard source, from drug use surveys to drug death rates, shows today’s teens are less likely to abuse hard drugs than teens of the previous generation; it is over-30 adults who display massive increases in drug casualties (these are the parents, another big point Fox doesn’t mention). Blaming media violence is specious, as indicated in the analysis of violent crime, murder, gun fatality, and poverty to follow. How can youths of divergent social classes who view the same media images show diametrically opposite trends and 30-fold differences in murder and gun violence rates during the last decade? Why do the same violent media in Canada, Europe, and Japan accompany murder rates one-fifth to one-fiftieth of ours?
Finally, there is no evidence presented for Fox’s claim that 44-year-olds are safer with guns than 14-year-olds--a notion that certainly should be plausible but which in real life is not. Fox does not explain the fact that the homicide arrest rate for adults in their 40s is similar to that of 14 year-olds. In 1995, the latest year available when Fox issued his report, 350 13-14-year-olds were arrested for murder, compared to 1,100 persons ages 40-44 and 650 ages 45-49 (these are the FBI’s age aggregations)--very similar per-capita rates. Factor in the higher poverty rates, lower numbers of victims per killer, and much lower conviction rate of teenagers compared to adults, and 40-agers may well display more firearms rashness than younger teens do.
Fox may be correct that society reacts with more shock and outrage to a shooting by a 14-year-old than by a 44-year-old, but he would have a hard time showing that middle-agers are either less murderous or have better reasons for committing murder than 14-year-olds do. That premise would be difficult to establish from any reasonable review of the massive, senseless gun carnage involving 40-aged shooters (a few of which are catalogued in Chapter 3), most of which were more violent than school shootings. In just the six months of 1999 I tracked, adults in their 40s committed mass gun slaughters that left 59 dead (21 of them children or teenagers) and 31 wounded--more than in the three years of school shootings on which the media fixated.
Fox’s Trends in Juvenile Violence: 1997 Update, continued his clinic in misdirected diagnosis:
If indeed teen homicide rates have plateaued in the 1990s or even if they continue to decline, future demographics could still produce a boost in the number of teen killings... the next ten years will bring an expansion in the teenage population, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics, as the “baby-boomerang” cohort (offspring of baby boomers) matures into adolescence.
It should be noted that at the time Fox wrote the above, the FBI reported that youths committed 8% of the murders in the U.S., a toll that has since fallen to 5%.
Fox and DiIulio are both Democrats. Fox refers to poverty as a major risk factor in violence arrest and homicide. DiIulio acknowledges that violent youths come from backgrounds where they were “terribly sinned against.” But, when it comes to media play and public debate, both abandon context and indulge in excitable hyping of “temporary sociopaths,” trigger-happy 14-year-olds, and “superpredators.” Both focus only on crime among the unpopular teenage demographic, and both completely ignore massive increases in serious crime among the popular, over-30 adult demographic.
When I refer to the “youth violence” epidemic as a hoax rather than simply a mistake, misunderstanding, or difference of opinion, Fox’s and DiIulio’s inexcusable deceptions top the list. The damage is getting belated official notice. “History shows it is a fool’s errand to try to predict future crime trends,” the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention declared in 1999 in a direct hit on fear-mongers like Fox and DiIulio. “...No one has been able to predict juvenile violence trends accurately.”
Race, Age, or Class?
There is yet another fact, perhaps the most crucial of all, to understanding the lockstep, authoritative/media commentary on “youth violence” in general and the school shootings in particular. It is clear from examining the statistics of the six states (California, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Pennsylvania) that consistently have reported juvenile murder arrests by race and ethnicity since 1980. These states recorded 15,000 youth homicide arrests over the last two decades and had an aggregate youth population of 8.5 million in 1999. Their numbers overcome a major problem of standard crime statistics, which combine European and Latino youths into the category “white.” These numbers took a bit of e-mailing and phoning to get, nothing crime authorities couldn’t assemble in a week.
Their implication, consistent by state and as a whole, is that homicide by white, non-Hispanic teenagers is rare and has fallen during the last two decades; in fact, it has fallen (Table 8). In 1980-84, the first five-year period reported, an average of 149 white teens were arrested for murder every year in these states; in 1995-99, 95 per year. Adjusted for the decline in the white teenage population over that period, that’s a rate decrease of 19%. In 1999, only 56 white teens were arrested for murder in the six states, the lowest year on record, 60% below the level of the early 1980s.
After a large peak in 1990-94, homicide arrest rates also are lower today for Latino and black youth than at any time since at least 1960. A much smaller peak is registered by white youth in the early 1990s. Finally, murder arrest rates today are six times higher among Latino, 13 times higher among black, and four times higher among Asian/Native (the only group to show an increase) youth.
California apparently is the only state whose race/age statistics extend back into the 1970s. Here we find the same pattern (Table 9). The results, taken directly from California crime and vital statistics reports, turn the debate upside down. Kids today are not more homicidal than those of the Baby Boom. Murder arrest rates for white youth bounce around in small ways and wind up today at their lowest levels in at least 40 years, and perhaps longer. A similar, but higher and more extreme pattern, is evident for black youth. All races except Asians (who started from a low base) are less likely to suffer a murder rap than their counterparts of 1960. Note that there was a peak in murder rates among youth of all races (mild among whites, severe among Latinos and blacks) during 1990-94, which will be dissected further below (see Table 10). As will be shown, it was a socioeconomic, not a racial or age-based, phenomenon.
Do California and the other five states, which are geographically well distributed and which account for about one-third of the nation’s homicides, represent the other states? It is too bad that other major states with large Latino populations (Texas, Florida, Illinois, and Arizona) do not provide complete statistics by ethnicity for the period. But when homicide deaths by race and ethnicity, available nationally from 1989 through 1999, are examined, the decline in murders involving white youths is the same in all 50 states as when arrests in the four states are considered.
As it is, however, two conclusions can be drawn. If the six reporting states do not represent the nation as a whole, it would be fascinating to study why white youths in these media-saturated, “toxic culture,” and gun-filled states had declining homicide rates. If they are representative of other states, then the same question would become a national one. None of the thousands of experts who weighed in on school shootings has raised this question: what does it do to everyone’s argument if, in fact, the school shootings are not a harbinger of suburban and rural youth gone berserk, but rare anomalies in the larger generational trend of declining murder?
Look at Poverty Instead
But “white” as a racial category also contains wide disparities in income. If poverty rather than race is the key factor, we would expect that poorer whites would show higher violent crime and murder arrest rates than wealthier ones. These can be glimpsed in the considerably higher murder arrest rates for white youth in Oklahoma, where youths endure higher poverty rates than in the other five states.
Californians generally are affluent, but the state’s affluence masks large income disparities. This is true, within a wealthier range, for white Californians. The state’s 15 most populous counties contain five-sixths of its population and violent crime arrests. With regard to poverty among white non-Latino youths (measured by U.S. Census count for 1989 and Children Now’s 1999 report on the proportions by race/ethnicity and county of youths in families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families in 1998), the counties divide neatly into two categories:
The wealthiest five (Marin, Orange, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Ventura, with white youth poverty rates below 5% and averaging 4.1%) lie along the coast, while the poorest seven (Fresno, Kern, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Tulare, where white-youth poverty rates exceed 10% and average 13.2%) are inland. Both sets of counties have combined populations exceeding five million and house more than half a million white teenagers. California has kept complete statistics on juvenile arrests by race and county since 1977, providing a large, 24-year data set to analyze.
Thus, in the poorest large counties, poverty rates among white youths average three times higher than in its richest counties. In these sets of counties with similar populations and urbanized structure (each is dominated by a major urban area), the richest have low white-youth homicide rates comparable to those of Western Europe--not surprising, since their poverty rates (4% on average) also are comparable to Western European youths’. In the five poorest, murder rates among white youths are 2.6 times those in the richest (Table 10). Overall, white youths in poor counties are 65% more likely to be arrested for violence than those in richer counties.
Further, while white youths’ violent crime rates in the richer counties remained low and generally flat during the 1990s, those of the poorer counties showed the same upward-downward cycle found among poorer black, Latino, and Asian youths. In 1990, for example, the homicide arrest rate among white youths in the five poorest counties was 5.6 per 100,000, four times the rate of white youth in wealthier climes. Gun fatality rates were also 2.5 times higher among white youths in poorer counties than in richer ones during the 1985-98 period (see Chapter 3).
The same sets of counties also have widely disparate rates of poverty among youth of color. In the five richest counties, 15% of nonwhite youth live in families with incomes below poverty levels, versus 35% in the seven poorer counties. As with white youth, youth of color in poorer counties show much higher rates of violence arrest, especially for homicide (Table 10).
Figure 2 displays California’s trends in homicide arrest among the two racial categories (white and color) in the two sets of counties (rich and poor). More than any other depiction, the figure illustrates why there is no such thing as “youth violence.” Even in this simple set of trends, there are at least four distinct patterns.
For white youths in richer counties, rates are low and flat throughout, and considerably lower in the late 1990s than in previous decades. More affluent youth did not participate in the 1990s teen murder surge.
“Poorer” white youth not only show higher murder rates, but evidence a modest cyclical trend with peaks in 1981 and the early 1990s.
“Richer” youth of color (a misnomer, since they are slightly poorer than “poorer” white youth) show slightly higher murder rates overall and a more pronounced, intermediate increase in the early 1990s. If we combine the above three groups, which constitute the large majority of youths, there was one bad year--1993--but otherwise not much of a homicide increase.
Poorer youth of color, whose poverty rates are two to eight times higher than those of the other groups, show the dramatic cycles and immense peaks in 1980 and the early 1990s in homicides. This group, a small fraction of the total youth population, generated nearly all of the scary statistics regarding a tripling in teen homicide and death rates higher than in the Vietnam War.
From the 1980s to the 1990s, violent crime arrest rates rose only marginally and homicide arrests and gun death rates fell among white youths, while violent crime rates rose two- to three-fold and homicide and gun death rates tripled among youth of color. The reason murder, other violent crime, and gun death trends among white youths are not as negative or extreme as those of youths of color is evident from this analysis: a much smaller proportion of white youths live in poverty (even in the poorer counties). For example, the highest poverty rate among white youths(in Tulare County, at 18%) is well below the average poverty rates of 25-30% suffered by black and Latino youth in California. As will be seen in a parallel analysis of gun deaths in the next chapter, the best thing policy makers can do to prevent violence, homicide, and gun fatality among youths is to prevent youth poverty. In fact, reducing poverty may be the only meaningful action government can take.
Busted on 21
In 1996, California voters crushed a bipartisan, $1 billion bond issue to build more prisons. Too rich for frugal voter checkbooks, analysts opined.
Yet, on March 7, 2000, California voters by a 62-38% margin approved Proposition 21, a measure to spend $5 billion over the next decade “getting tough” on juvenile crime. Proposition 21 required that more juvenile offenders ages 14 and older be tried in adult court for certain offenses and at the sole discretion of prosecutors with no judicial review, increased penalties for “gang related” crimes, drastically expanded the definition of what constitutes a “gang” crime, channeled more 16- and 17-year-old offenders to adult prisons, and expanded the list of violent and other serious offenses for which longer prison terms are mandated. Forget the human side; this vote made no sense in terms of sound policy and fiscal responsibility.
Among the 51 states including DC, California ranks ninth in per-capita personal income, 10th in per-capita imprisonment, and 37th in per-pupil public school spending. One would expect wealthier states to display prison-vs.-school spending ratios the other way around. Yet, a few weeks before endorsing Proposition 21, Democratic Governor Gray Davis (yet another who proclaims himself an education leader) declared he could not support a modest initiative by public school teachers to bring California schools (which in 2000 spent $6,401 per pupil) up to the national average ($7,527 without California)--let alone the top-10 status it occupied in the 1960s (the 7th ranked state, where California stood in 1968, spent $8,750 per pupil in 2000; the ninth ranked, $8,809).
Too expensive, Davis told teachers. Teachers finally won the increase after lobbying furiously in a year of immense budget surplus. Yet Davis, another in the state’s post-1980 roster of “prison” governors’ who receives lavish campaign support from prison construction and guard interests, lent support to an unneeded juvenile crime proposition to add $500 million per year to the state’s swollen lockup budget.
Yet Youths Doing Better
In The Scapegoat Generation (1996), I penned a sentiment that annoys me today when others say the same thing: “The nightly news headlines youth violence, one expression of our abandonment of the next generation.” At the time, I assumed every expert must be right--teenagers must be getting steadily more criminal due to rising impoverishment inflicted by their elders. “We are not so eager to contemplate our own violence,” I added: “that implicit in the abandonment itself.”
It is true, as exhaustively documented in this volume, that higher rates of poverty correlate so strongly with crime, gun violence, and most other ills that we might as well not consider any other factor until that one is redressed. Further, rising rates of youth poverty contributed heavily to the explosion of homicide among poorer urban youth of the early 1990s.
But the startling truth, also exhaustively documented, is that young people as a generation are not more criminal, and only arguably and marginally more violent, than their wealthier, better invested-in counterparts of 25 years ago. While the largest decline in crime has been among white youths, the most impressive has been among the state’s most stressed young people of color.
Given plummeting educational investment and a doubled poverty rate since the 1970s, it would be no surprise if today’s California youth were increasingly prison bound. Yet the most recent (2001) crime figures showed serious (felony) arrest rates among California juveniles at a four-decade low, mellowing at levels not seen since the Kennedy Administration. Teenage homicide plummeted 77% from 1990 to 2002 and, even after a slight rise in 2001 and 2002, stands at its lowest point since 1967. The generation of younger kids coming up, the one crime experts branded the “superpredators” whose growing numbers would imperil all of society, sported their lowest rates of murder and felony arrest by far in the late 1990s since records were first compiled.
California’s real crime crisis: the state already harbored a $3 billion-per-year-and-skyrocketing fiscal time bomb for imprisoning rising tens of thousands of aging addicts. Kids were not the problem.
Were voters crazy to approve Proposition 21, then? Not necessarily. Voters didn’t hear any of those things. What they did see and hear was the rabid, decade-long anti-youth crusade waged by the state’s major media which left the public terrified of its teen population. Proposition 21 occupied 13 pages of single-spaced 10-point type in the voter handbook and made dozens of changes to state law and court rulings. But on election day, this was what voters saw on their ballots:
21. JUVENILE CRIME INITIATIVE STATUTE: Increases punishment for gang-related felonies, home-invasion robbery, carjacking, witness intimidation, and drive-by shootings; and creates crime of gang recruitment activities. Fiscal impact: State costs of more than $300 million annually; one-time costs of $750 million. Potential local costs of up to more than $100 million annually, and one-time costs of $200 million to $300 million.
Proposition 21 did a lot more than that, of course, and it did not create the crime of gang recruitment, since this was already against the law. Voters basically were told Prop 21 would punish five frightening crimes more harshly. They were not deterred by a fiscal impact of $1 billion in one-time costs and $400 million annually in ongoing state and local costs. This indicates how deeply afraid the public was even in a year in which crime and juvenile felony rates reached their lowest levels in three decades.