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The Calm Before the Crime Wave Storm : Homicides: The rate will soar as baby boomers’ children reach teenhood. We can invest in them now or build prisons later.

<i> James Alan Fox is dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. He specializes in demographic criminology</i>

Despite the steady stream of bleak headlines about teens murdering one another over things like bad jokes or leather jackets, there actually has been some good news on the crime front. The National Center for Health Statistics announced its preliminary tabulations for 1994, which revealed that the homicide rate in America dropped 8%, extending a downward trend since 1991. And well into 1995, several major cities, including New York, Houston, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, are already boasting of substantial drops this year in their homicide counts.

Aided by federal funding, police chiefs around the country are beginning to feel that they can make some headway in combatting the plague of street crime. The spread of community policing--putting more cops on the street to fight crime and disorder in a proactive way--has clearly revolutionized law enforcement much for the better. At the same time, Congress has passed the Brady bill as well as a ban on assault rifles. More cops on the streets and more caps on gun sales have translated into less crime.

Though these trends are encouraging, at least superficially, there is little time to celebrate. It is doubtful that today’s improving crime picture will last very long. This may be the calm before the crime storm. Hidden in the overall drop in homicide and other violent crimes is a soaring rate of mayhem among teen-agers.

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There are actually two crime trends in America--one for the young, one for the mature--which are moving in opposite directions and balancing off in the statistics. For example, from 1990 to 1993 (the last year for which detailed national data are available), the rate of murder in America remained virtually unchanged--9.5 per 100,000 of population. While the murder rate committed by adults 25 and older fell 10%, the rate among young adults 18 to 24 rose 14% and for teen-agers jumped a whopping and tragic 26%.

The surge in youth violence has occurred while the population in the prime crime age group--teens and young adults--was on the decline. But this demographic benefit is about to change.

As a consequence of the “baby boomerang” (the offspring of the baby boomers), there are now 39 million children in this country under 10, more young children than we’ve had for decades. Millions of them live in poverty. Most do not have full-time parental supervision at home guiding their development and supervising their behavior. Of course, these children will not remain young for long; they will reach their high-risk years before you can say “teen-age crime wave.”

By the year 2005, the number of teens ages 14 to 17 will swell by 14%, with an even larger increase among people of color--17% among black teens and 30% among Latino teens. Given the difficult conditions in which many of these youngsters grow up--with inferior schools and violence-torn neighborhoods--many more teen-agers will be at risk in the years ahead.

The challenge is how best to deal with youth violence. The good news is that we now have some of the tools with which to deal effectively with the problem of teens, guns and crime. The 1994 crime bill, for example, provided tighter restrictions on guns and generous funding for enhanced community police strength and prevention programs. The bad news is that some members of Congress have their sights set on killing off these important provisions in favor of funding prison construction and poorly focused block grants.

At this critical juncture, we are over-investing in ineffective quick fixes--three-strikes laws, the death penalty and boot camps--rather than investing in our burgeoning youth population. Congress and the White House must resist the political temptations of championing the 3 R’s--retribution, retaliation and revenge. Though it may tend to promote a fourth R--reelection--this bankrupt approach will not be the solution to our impending crime wave.

Even more distressing than the proposed changes in last year’s landmark crime control legislation, some critics have, in light of recent crime statistics, suggested that the epidemic of violence may have been overstated through alarmist media hype.

The war against crime is far from won. Complacency and myopia in preparing for the coming crisis of youth crime will almost certainly guarantee a future blood bath--one that will someday make 1995 look like the good old days.


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