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The Usual Suspects -- Myths and Facts
Predicted Teen Crime Wave Is "Science Fiction," Says Leading Authority on Juvenile Justice

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs
Posted January 27, 1999

Photo: American Youth Violence

A child opens fire on a schoolyard, killing and maiming his young peers. Gang members drive down a neighborhood street, shooting at anyone in their path.

There are plenty of such shocking stories in the news, in the public memory and on the minds of politicians pushing for get-tough policies aimed at wayward youth. But while some -- fueled by predictions of a teen population boom -- foresee a juvenile crime wave, a Berkeley law professor calls those prognostications "science fiction."

According to Franklin Zimring, a leading legal authority on juvenile justice and director of Boalt's Earl Warren Legal Institute, the statistics suggest that American youths are no more violent in the late 1990s than 20 years before.

"There have been up and down cycles in the period," he said, "but we have been breaking even in the longer term."

In a new book, "American Youth Violence" (Oxford University Press, 1998), Zimring reviews national juvenile statistics, population demographics, public policy developments and media coverage of juvenile violence from 1980 to 1997. He reveals that:

  • Since 1980, arrest rates for juveniles, ages 13 to 17, accused of rape and robbery shows no identifiable trend, either up or down. Rates are currently lower than they were in 1980.
  • Most of the increase in the arrest rate for aggravated assault for juveniles during the 1984 -1992 period was due to a change in the way police report and classify such arrests. A lower threshold for crimes considered aggravated assault created a crime wave only on paper.
  • The homicide arrest rate for juveniles rose sharply between 1984 and 1992. but declined by more than one-third by 1996 and, according to just-released FBI figures, dropped an additional 16 percent in 1997.
"Legislative proposals across the country have been motivated by the sense of a national youth violence emergency," said Zimring. "But a closer look at the data ... shows that the evidence of a juvenile crime wave -- either current or on the horizon -- is no more substantial than the evidence that supports the existence of the Loch Ness Monster."

In recent years, he said, some lawmakers and policymakers, extrapolating from current demographic trends, have predicted a boom in the adolescent population by the year 2010. Along with that boom, they foresee a significant increase in criminal activity and the advent of juvenile superpredators.

The U.S. Census Bureau expects the teen population to grow 16 percent over a 15 year-period that ends in 2010, resulting in 21.5 million teens. But projections extrapolated from those figures are, according to Zimring, "silly."

"Forecasting the coming storm of juvenile justice violence is science fiction," Zimring said, "not science."

Especially disturbing, he said, is that the projections presume a fixed percentage of today's male children -- six percent -- is destined to become seriously violent.

Specifically, forecasters conclude that because roughly six percent of juveniles have high levels of juvenile arrest, then six percent of all boys will become serious violent offenders as they reach adolescence in 2010.

Further, according to Zimring, the assertions make no distinction between individuals who might become involved in petty offenses and those who might turn to violent criminal acts -- the entire group has been labeled future juvenile superpredators "before they were out of diapers."

The truth is that no one can predict the level of serious criminal activity -- homicides, rapes and armed robberies -- among future teens, he said. There are too many unknown variables to project forward five -- let alone 15 -- years.

According to Zimring, since 1996, the only aspect of the youth population of 2010 that the U.S. Congress has examined has been juvenile arrests and crime trends.

The public also lacks an accurate perspective about the level of crime in America, he said. News reports are full of stories about the rare 12-year-old who kills, Zimring said, and the media are reporting stories of increasingly younger offenders.

In reality, 171/2-year olds have the highest rate of violence compared to other juveniles.

"The closer youth are to adulthood," he said, "the more likely they are to hit you over the head or to kill you, and there's nothing new about that."

A long-range look at crime trends in America indicates no need for an overhaul of the juvenile justice system based on crime trends alone, Zimring said, and no need for the public to fear a group of minors who have yet to carry a lunch box to school.


January 27 - February 2, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 20)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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