Exposing the Myth of “Youth Violence”

Mike Males

c San Francisco Attorney, April-May 2000

Fixation on "youth violence" is founded in bad statistics, evades our real drug and crime crisis, and represents the latest regrettable chapter in "demographic scapegoating" that keeps America from reducing violence as effectively as other Western nations do

Remember the dire '90s crime forecasts? Princeton politics professor John DiIulio and former Education Secretary William Bennett warned the growing “population of teenagers with higher incidence of serious drug use, more access to powerful firearms, and fewer moral restraints than any such group in American history” would bring “tens of thousands of morally impoverished juvenile superpredators” to “murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs and get high.” Rising hordes of “temporary sociopaths,” Northeastern University dean and Bureau of Justice Statistics consultant James Alan Fox's term for adolescents, foretold “a coming teenage crime storm.” “Get ready,” grimaced UCLA management professor James Q. Wilson, America's most quoted crime expert.

What actually happened? From 1992 to 1998, the teen population aged 14-19 grew by 15%, adding 500,000 “temporary sociopaths” every year... and crime plummeted. Annual violent crimes decreased 289,000 (-16%), murders dropped by 6,500 (-33%), rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults declined by 282,000 (-20%), major property crimes fell by 1.7 million (-20%). Black and Latino teen populations, the groups Fox called the most crime-prone, stand at record highs, and crime levels stand at 30-year lows.

The problem wasn't that America's excitable crime experts (now congratulating themselves for “bringing down youth violence” absent any evidence they deserve credit) were so thoroughly and unanimously wrong. Crime is difficult to forecast. The problem was that top authorities based frightening predictions and sweeping policies affecting millions of young people on simplistic demographic prejudices that failed to predict crime trends in the past and wouldn't meet the elemental validity tests of an introductory statistics methods class.

What passed for crime forecasting in the 1990s consisted of drawing straight lines. DiIulio multiplied the entire juvenile male population by the 6% assumed from a 1948 study to engage in serious criminal activity. He first warned of 300,000 more “superpredators” by 2005; then, after Berkeley criminologist Frank Zimring pointed out most would be in diapers or knickers, DiIulio downsized it to 30,000.

Fox simply tacked the rise in juvenile murder rates from 1984 to 1994 to the increasing youth population to project 4,400 murderers ages 14-17 in 1996, 5,500 by 1998, 8,500 by 2005. When 1995 crime figures showed his prophecy already heading moonward, Fox pared it to augur 3,700 youth murderers in 1996 and 3,900 by 1998.

The reality: in 1996, there were 2,900 murder arrests among age 14-17; in 1998, 2,100. Within scant months of issuance, Fox's minimum projection was overstated by 25%. By 1998, his exaggeration ballooned to 80% to 250%. This was not the first time Fox's demographic imperative wildly misfired. His 1978 Forecasting Crime predicted trends for the 1980s and 1990s based on proportions of minority males ages 14-21 and the consumer price index that proved uncannily the opposite of what transpired.

The scary arrest figures authorities and the media repeat vastly overstate youth crime. During the 1990s, the FBI reported that youths comprised 15% of murder arrests and 18% of violent crime arrests but committed just 8% of all homicides and 13% of violent offenses. A 1997 tracking study found only half the youths arrested for murder were convicted. In 1998, only 6.3% of murders in the United States were committed by youths -- which meant someone else committed 94%. How, then, did youths get tagged as the apocalyptic menace to society, and how did more threatening groups get off the hook?

Authorities’ narrow fixation on juveniles led them to ignore America's real "crime storm" -- skyrocketing arrests for serious violent, property, and drug offenses among aging Baby Boomers. Despite frantic alarms of a new generation of criminal kids, FBI records showed the arrest rate for Part I felony violent and property crimes among youths had been flat -- in fact, dropped a bit -- over the past 30 years. Compared to the mid-1970s, juvenile violent and property felony arrests decreased by 200,000 per year in volume and, after factoring in the drop in the youth population, fell 3% by rate. Further, among kids ages 8-12 -- tomorrow's "superpredators" -- 1990s murder arrest rates were sharply below those of the 1960s and 1970s, a point unmentioned in recent campaigns to present "children killing children" as an unheard-of epidemic.

Exactly the opposite occurred among their parents. In 1998, 450,000 more 30-49 year-olds were arrested for serious Part I offenses than 20 years earlier, a per-capita rate jump of 70%, larger increases by far than for any other age group. (And luminaries were trumpeting doom over 30,000 more juvenile offenders?). So, flatly contradicting repeated statements of crime authorities, the truth was that over the last quarter-century, serious offenders were becoming not younger, but older, and kids were becoming less crime-prone as grownups were becoming more so.

Over-30 grownups, unlike youth, are too privileged to have their age group officially linked to mayhem, but "middle-aged violence" is no joke. In the last half of 1999, a series of mass shootings by mostly well-off adults in their 30s and 40s in offices, homes, community centers, even churches and Bible study groups, killed 59 people (21 of them children and teens) and injured 31 more (including 10 kids). In just 25 weeks, grownups over age 30, a group authorities assure us is harmless, gunned down 90 in mass killings, more than school shooters did in three years. And that's a minimum; many grownup slaughters don't make the national news.

With virtual unanimity, leading political and institutional authorities shrugged off compelling adult crime trends, mass murders, and drug abuse that comprise the nation's most serious social crisis. The substitution of agenda for reality demonstrated again why American leaders remain unable to design effective measures to address this society's appallingly high risks. In fact, experts steadfastly deny the new reality that offenders 25 and older (an age group they claim has matured out “crime-prone years”) commit a large majority of violent crimes -- including the murders of 2,000 children and teenagers by parents every year, double the entire toll of “youth violence.”

The Middle-aged Crime Bomb
If national crime figures were surprising, California's promise to turn fundamental theories of crime on their heads. The state's complete and consistent statistics show that leading authorities massively misrepresented crime trends and what they mean. Thus, policy makers continue to obsess over a teenage crime scourge that never materialized while ignoring the rising tens of thousands of felonies and incarcerations among aging, over-30 addicts. If crime experts were told California would spend more this year (nearly $3 billion) to imprison new, over-30 convicts than it does on the entire University of California system ($2 billion), the reaction would be amused dismissal.

With a few exceptions, the crime picture among today's younger generation is surprisingly bright. Crime & Delinquency in California (1998, Table 16) shows the juvenile felony rate is lower today than at any time since 1966. In the last 20 years, annual felony arrests among California youth declined 25,000 in number and 40% by population adjusted rate even after the 1976 marijuana law change is factored out. Not only are juvenile arrest rates down, youths are arrested for less serious offenses: 38% were charged with felonies in 1978; 33% in 1998.

Among California's older generation, the picture is bleak. Felony arrests leaped by 170,000 in number and 120% by rate among adults 30 and older in the last two decades. While a 14 year-old was three times more likely to be arrested for a felony in 1978 than his/her 40 year-old parent, today Dad and Junior have equal arrest risks. The acceleration in new prison admittees over age 30 is staggering: 2,500 in 1977, 11,300 in 1987, 26,400 in 1997, 37,500 in 1998 -- up 15-fold in two decades and 40% in the most recent year alone.

Older offenders are committing more serious crimes, receiving longer sentences, and costing more to cage due to health problems. Crowning the ironies, California's fastest-growing felon and prison-bound population over the last decade was its most affluent (white non-Latino adults over 30); the only group to show a decline was its poorest (blacks under age 25). Yet, in continued denial of clear reality, California District Attorneys Association and Police Chiefs Association leaders intoned this year that “despite great strides made recently in the war against adult crime,” the projected growth in the youth population foretells “a juvenile crime wave.”

Why? From 1990 to 1998, California's juvenile population ages 10-17 rose by 600,000 to its highest level ever -- and annual violent crimes fell by 82,000 (-35%), homicides fell by 1,400 (-46%), and major property crimes fell by 480,000 (-37%). California owes its crime decline over the last three decades to the startling fact that crime dropped among persons under 25 more than it rose among those 30 and older. There is utterly no grounds for claiming today's youth are more criminal than the previous generation, though they certainly should be, given the doubled poverty rates, more adult and family disarray, and manifestly poorer education and job opportunities today's youth suffer compared to their elders' generations.

California's crime trends were not completely ignored. In 1996, the state Task Force to Review Juvenile Crime puzzled: “The arrest statistics are not reflective of the concern expressed by some about juvenile crime. In fact, the data show a marked decline in both the number of total juvenile arrests and arrest rates since the early 1970s.”

The Task Force did express concern about the growth in violent crime among a small number of youths from 1985 to the early 1990s. In 1998, juvenile violent crime arrest rates were 52% higher than in the trough year of 1985. However, violent crime rates rose even more in that interval among most adults: age 18-29 (up 55%), 30-49 (up 114%), over age 50 (up 46%). Even though California's rate of reported violent crime was lower in 1998 than in 1985, arrests increased largely because police made more aggravated assault arrests in domestic and street violence cases that used to bring warnings or misdemeanor citations. The bottom line: youths accounted for only one-tenth of California's growth in violent crime arrests during the period but suffered 100% of the bad publicity.

Finally, examination of increased homicide among youths from 1985 to 1994 shows it was entirely a socioeconomic phenomenon. White (non-Latino) youths, the most affluent group, showed no increase in murder; their 1998 homicide arrest rates were 40% lower than in the mid-1970s and 15% lower than in 1985. But among black, Latino, and Asian youth, murder arrest rates nearly tripled to a sharp peak in the early 1990s, then dropped back to levels of the 1970s. California statistics clearly belie authorities' hectorings in the media that occasional school shootings and heinous crimes by affluent kids prove murder had risen among all races and classes of youth.

That poverty, not race or age, is the critical factor can be seen from examination of violence by white youths. California's major counties (200,000+ people) divide into five with poverty rates among white youths of below 5% (Marin, Orange, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Ventura) and seven similarly-populated counties with white-youth poverty rates exceeding 10% (Fresno, Kern, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tulare).

On average, white youths in poorer counties suffer poverty rates (13.8%) four times higher than white youths in richer counties. And, from 1985 to 1998, California Criminal Justice Profiles and vital statistics show white youths in poor counties had violent crime rates 70% higher, murder arrest rates 2.6 times higher, and firearms death rates 2.5 times higher than white youths in the rich counties. White youths in California's wealthier counties have poverty rates (3.4%) as low as youths in Denmark or Sweden, and they display similarly low homicide and gun-murder rates (1.4 and 0.8 per 100,000 per year, respectively). In poorer counties, white-youth murder and gun death levels approach those of Latinos.

But when a well-off white kid does kill, perspective vanishes. In 1998, as the media, politicians, and experts worried that school shootings would spread to every suburb and pastoral community, no one mentioned that California's murder arrest rate among white teens had fallen to its lowest point in decades. Meanwhile, even after strong declines against much steeper socioeconomic odds, 1998 murder rates among black youths remained nine times higher, and Latino youths' six times higher, than among white youths. So powerful is the effect of poverty status that a black or Latino 50 year-old is more likely to be arrested for murder or die by gunfire than is a white teenager. Yet, while most authorities recognize that poverty, not biological or cultural defect, explains higher murder arrest rates among minorities, they refuse to acknowledge that similar socioeconomic disadvantages entirely explain what we call “youth violence.”

The “Youth Violence” Misnomer
There is no such thing as “youth violence.” The levels of, and cycles in, violent crime and homicide among poorer, mostly minority young men occur because, for every race/ethnic group, poverty rates among the young are twice those of adults. Factor out poverty differences, and murder and violent crime rates are higher among adults in their 20s and 30s than among teenagers. Adult violent crime rates would be higher still if the chances of being arrested for committing domestic violence (200,000 cases per year reported to California police agencies) approached those for street violence. Family violence is the chief danger to children and women, murdering three times more kids than all "youth violence" combined.

Nor are rare, public crimes such as school shootings a "youth" phenomenon. These are individual pathologies amply shared with adults, as more common mass shootings by grownups show. There is, in short, nothing in the behavior of young people as distinct from adults that merits tagging their generation with the pejorative term, "youth violence." In fact, such labelings rightly would be seen as bigoted if applied to racial or ethnic groups. Why, then, is it acceptable to single out young people for negative stereotyping?

The reason illuminates America's paralyzing institutional biases. Rather than attacking the conditions that underlie social problems, as leadership in other Western nations more often do, American leaders blame the personal flaws and misbehaviors of disfavored demographic groups: Asian and Eastern and Southern European immigrants in the early century, Japanese-Americans during World War II, Mexican migrants in various cycles, African Americans throughout. Negative stereotypes applied in the past to scapegoated racial/ethnic groups (innately violent, biologically flawed, impulsive, menacing peaceful society in growing numbers) are identical to those politicians and experts use to describe adolescents today. Exhaustive research reviews show such claims are no more valid about teenagers than about racial and ethnic out-groups of the past. Given similar conditions, whites, minorities, adolescents, and adults behave in similar ways.

The designation of youth as the new scapegoat results in part from the fears of an aging, mostly white, society of a growing, increasingly nonwhite, youth population. But the recent demonization of youths suggests larger political motives as well. Statistics show the groups showing the most alarming increases in serious crime -- over-30 adults, mostly white -- are exactly the mainstream constituencies politicians seek to flatter. More by mutual self-interests than formal conspiracy, America's politicians and institutions took the increases in middle-aged crime and drug abuse off the table and instead misportrayed these solely as youth problems.

Ending Demographic Scapegoating
In May 1999, a 39 year-old, furious at his ex-girlfriend's rejection, brutally murdered two children and critically injured five others at a Costa Mesa school playground. Yet, even amid intense fears over school violence in the wake of the Columbine shootings, this horrifying school killing received little national media attention, no reaction from anti-violence groups, no mention at White House "school safety" forums. That this and other cases of "grownups killing children" so quickly disappear from the national radar should provoke sober reflection as to whether today's hyper-attention to "youth violence" and "children killing children" really concerns the safety of young people.

Whatever its motives, the campaign against “youth violence” is founded in massive misinformation and prejudice, unfairly stigmatizes a well-behaved younger generation, and obstructs reasoned policy. It should be disbanded and replaced by a society-wide campaign against the United States’ high levels of poverty, gun violence, and institutional racism. The U.S. will only make progress against our alarming array of social problems when we grow out of demographic scapegoating.

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