Dark Clouds on the Crime Front : Big trouble might arrive with a big new generation of often troubled youngsters

With alarm about crime running high in America, it may come as a surprise that the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report shows the overall crime rate fell again last year. Violent crime--including murder, rape, robbery and assault--mirrored the trend, declining to its lowest level since 1989.

The statistics, based largely on data compiled by state and local police agencies, show serious crimes down 4% from 1993. In nine cities of more than 1 million population, including Los Angeles, the rate fell 8%. The Los Angeles figure fell 13%.

Yet despite this encouraging news, officials from law enforcement, the criminal justice system and governments here and around the nation are justifiably concerned that these declines represent the proverbial calm before the storm. The tempest in this case is a large new generation of often disaffected, disenfranchised and increasingly well-armed youths. Crime tends to grow when there are large numbers of young people relative to the rest of the population.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh surely echoed the sentiments of many Americans when he said there was little solace to be found in the crime report’s numbers, especially when they included 23,000 murders last year. Not only were the overall reductions modest, but the wide presence of violent crime perpetrated by an “increasingly growing and violent juvenile population” was cause for fear, he pointed out.


Indeed, several crime categories, particularly those related to juvenile gun violence, have soared. Since 1989, for example, U.S. gun homicides among those under 18 have increased by a staggering 143%. Juveniles arrested on weapons-related charges from 1985 to 1993 doubled, to 61,000.

A recent report by the California state legislative analyst’s office sounded a similarly ominous chord. The juvenile violence arrest rate in California has climbed 53% since 1985. And the state report predicted that youth crime would increase by 29% over the next decade even if arrest rates stayed the same.

Clearly the rising number of violence-prone youngsters, the wide availability of firearms (particularly cheap handguns) and what Freeh called the deterioration of “structures that guarantee safe communities and families” are prime factors fueling a youth crime boom.

Time remains for federal, state and local governments to stay ahead of the next wave with appropriate policy prescriptions. Let’s keep kids off the streets and guns out of their hands.