Punishing Teens to Protect Them

Mike Males
c Los Angeles Times, Opinion, June 11, 2000

An imaginary "youth crisis" spawns dubious teen-control panaceas

Serious crime, murder, violent deaths, suicide, traffic crashes, and drug and alcohol abuse are much rarer among teenagers today than those of 25 years ago. Yet, as voters’ massive approval of get-tough Proposition 21 last month indicates, Californians continue to believe today's youth perpetrate unheard-of savageries and require harsher policing. Not just delinquents, but average teens increasingly are shackled with daytime and nighttime curfews, curtailments on driving, and banishment from movies, music, and video games.

Whether the stampede to enchain adolescents is fair is swept aside by the claim that it makes them safer. As one police official declared, “teens don't have rights if they're dead.” Youth curfews, driving laws, and similar crackdowns have been followed by claims of huge reductions in crime, traffic deaths, and other ills -- assertions later analysis showed were dubious.

Example: in 1994, Monrovia, Calif., imposed a schoolday curfew on youths that won quick acclaim. Police credited the curfew with cutting daytime burglaries and thefts by 50% to 60%. President Clinton lent endorsement in a 1996 campaign stop. The press clarioned Monrovia's “small town success.” Cities rushed to impose daytime and nighttime curfews which, if adopted as the White House recommended, would allow youths to be in public only a couple of hours on most days.

Then, in January 1998, to no publicity, the Monrovia Police statistician admitted in a lawsuit deposition that the figures were wrong. Revised data from police showed a big surprise: crime indeed dropped in Monrovia from 1994 to 1997 (though no more than in neighboring cities without curfews), but the biggest declines took place during hours the curfew was not in effect. The crime decrease during summer months (down 43%) and school-year weekends and evenings (down 34%) when youths were allowed in public was larger than during schoolday hours (down 29%) when juveniles were banished.

My 1998 statewide analysis for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, published in Western Criminology Review, similarly found cities that enforced curfews had no larger declines in crime than cities which let kids be in public as they and parents chose. In fact, San Francisco, which abolished its youth curfew, boasted California's biggest drops in urban violent crime, juvenile homicides, and teenage deaths from murder, firearms, and other violence.

Why do cities and time periods with large numbers of youths in public, such as San Francisco and the summer months in Monrovia (when an exemplary recreation program draws young people outdoors), show healthier crime declines? “Good places are largely self-policing,” because their use by many and varied people enhances safety, urban scholar William Whyte declared. Conversely, sweeping security efforts often backfire. In 400 Vernon, Connecticut, curfew citations I analyzed for court testimony, police reported virtually no criminal activity, intoxication, or other misbehavior by youths they cited and sent home. The curfew's effect was to occupy police time removing law-abiding teenagers from public, creating empty neighborhoods and choicer opportunities for crime.

Another youth-control measure, California's new teenage driving law, curbs new drivers under age 18 from driving alone or with teenage friends unless supervised by a parent or other adult 25 and older. Backers promptly pronounced it a success, but recent figures from the Highway Patrol showed otherwise.

Before the new law took effect, traffic fatalities among 16 year-olds had plummeted 50% and injury-causing wrecks fell 30% in 10 straight years of decline. But, in the first year after the new law took effect in July 1998, 16 year-olds suffered a 38% jump in traffic deaths, their biggest increase in decades, and no improvement in injury wrecks. This is especially troubling since the law applied almost exclusively to 16 year-olds in its first year.

Much fault for this misdirected policy lies with the state Office of Traffic Safety, whose “Youthquake” forums in 1997 warned the “alarming population trend” (more teenagers) would boost highway deaths and drunken driving. Yet, state figures showed no reason to panic. Teenage traffic deaths had been plunging for two decades. In 1977, drivers under age 18 were in 451 fatal wrecks; in 1987, 320; in 1997, 187 -- 60% fewer per driver than in the 1970s. In 1997, a quarter-million more 16-19 year-olds had 6,000 fewer serious crashes than in 1990. Further, 40 year-olds drunkenly kill and injure far more people than a 17 year-olds do; 40 year-old men cause more besotted highway massacre than all teen girls age 15-19 combined.

While the new law's advocates claimed teens were in dire peril when allowed to drive alone or with peers, the evidence shows teens were safer and improving their record more rapidly when they and parents (not a sweeping law) made the decision. The best way to improve novices' driving more is to provide intensive, behind-the-wheel professional instruction. That's more expensive than the new law's deputizing of any over-25 driver (an age group that caused 1 million serious crashes in California during the 1990s) as an instructor, but wasn't safety supposedly the goal?

The newest panacea is restricting youths' access to media and entertainment. West Point psychologist Dave Grossman argues that violent video games, movies, and music make today's kids more murderous. Certainly violent games (or Beatles music or the Bible) might incite a disturbed individual, but Grossman and other media critics claim they're warping the entire generation. Their evidence is peculiar, even perverse. Grossman blames the increase in aggravated assaults over the last 35 years on violent media but fails to note that assault rates peaked in 1992 and have since fallen sharply.

Indeed, after the violent interactive video games he criticizes appeared (Mortal Kombat in 1991, Doom in 1992, Quake in 1996, etc.), rates of serious teenage crime and other ills plummeted. In California, as video games, gangsta rap music, R-rated movies, Internet patronage, and teenage peer groups proliferated in the 1990s, teenage murder rates fell by 60% and other violence dropped 20%. Grossman's fallacy that correlation equals causation really suggest that peer culture and violent media reduce youth crime.

The panicky, often self-serving authorities who forecast cataclysmic crime and chaos would accompany increased numbers of teenagers were flatly wrong. From 1990 through 1999, America’s teen population rose by four million, and crime, traffic wrecks, and other ills plunged to their lowest levels in decades. Analysis shows recent anti-youth clampdowns deserve no credit for good trends and probably hampered them; youth behavior improvements began years earlier and were stronger in time periods and areas such as San Francisco that permitted youths more freedom.

If it seems contrary to common sense that better teenage conduct accompanies fewer mass restrictions, consider Canada and Western Europe, where teenagers are freer to be in public, drink alcohol, and engage in adult behaviors, yet display low rates of mishap. Americans, however, increasingly define “adolescent” not as “adult in progress,” but “abstain from everything.” The result is that American teenagers must avoid grownups in order to grow up, promoting the peer cultures that terrify aging society. In the end, today's ineffective, needlessly restrictive controls to “protect youth” are not intended to promote safety as much as control -- and, to paraphrase Jefferson, achieve neither.

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