Forget the ‘Youth Menace’: Crime, It Turns Out, Is a Grown-Up Business

Mike Males, senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, teaches sociology at UC Santa Cruz.

The murder rate in Los Angeles is up. And a new report from Choices for Youth and the California Wellness Foundation suggests why -- youth violence. “This is an epidemic” involving youths ages 10 through 17, said Choices for Youth director Laurie Kappe.

Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Ronald Bergmann urged more “aggressive curfew and truancy enforcement” to take “young victims” and “possible [suspects] off the streets.” Deputy City Atty. Anthony Koutris called the problem of kids carrying guns “overwhelming.”

But reports on the LAPD’s official Web page detailing several hundred homicides tell a different story. Even amid the increase in murders this year in the city, the number of juveniles committing homicide is down sharply. Barring a calamitous next two weeks, fewer L.A. juveniles under age 18 will be arrested in homicide cases in 2002 than the 49 arrested last year, and far fewer than the average of 150 arrested annually in the 1990s.


The relatively low number of juvenile arrests does not stem from aggressive curfew enforcement. The LAPD’s own studies, as well as others’, show that curfews don’t reduce crime or protect youths. Police reports show that 47 L.A. juveniles have been murdered so far this year -- most, apparently, by grown-ups. The suspects listed on the LAPD Web site accused of murdering youths under age 18 are all adults.

Los Angeles murder suspects, overall, are considerably older than in the past. In the 1990s, two-thirds of the murder suspects were under age 25; in 2002, fewer than half are.

Similarly, police and community leaders in Oakland, which is also suffering from a sharp rise in homicides, blamed youth violence. Yet, as in L.A., police tabulations show that murder suspects in Oakland are older. Only three teenagers have been arrested in murder cases in that city this year, far below the average of 10 to 12 a year in the 1990s.

The reflex to blame youths stems from the conventional theory that, as UCLA management professor James Q. Wilson puts it, “a ‘critical mass’ of young persons ... creates an explosive increase in the amount of crime.” This is not true today, if it ever was. Correlations of crime rates and the proportion of America’s population ages 14-24 -- the “crime-prone” age group -- over the last three decades show that years and states with higher percentages of young males suffered considerably fewer murders and other violent crimes.

Reliance on antiquated demographic myths has generated absurdly wrong predictions and futilely repressive policies against younger and poorer groups.

In 1995, forecasts by Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox and former Manhattan Institute senior fellow John J. DiIulio Jr. that teen population growth would spawn hordes of “adolescent superpredators” and a “teenage crime storm” provoked sensational headlines: “Teenage Time Bombs” (Time magazine); “Wild in the Streets” (Newsweek); “The Coming Mayhem” (Los Angeles Times).

The dire predictions proved false. There were 60,000 fewer youth homicide, rape, robbery and assault arrests in 2001 than in 1994.

Even though the evidence debunks it, the dogma that “demography is destiny” and “more teens means more crime” prevails. National law enforcement and academic experts recently surveyed by the Washington Post attributed the upsurge in the 2001 crime rate to an “increase in the teenage population ... the age group most likely to commit crimes.” Fox warned in an August 2002 Urban Institute report that “the youth population is now beginning to grow [particularly among minorities],” threatening “renewed problems of youth violence.”

Is obtuseness a job qualification for crime experts? The U.S. teen population has risen by 3 million since 1990 -- and compared with 1990, murders in 2001 dropped by 7,500, violent crimes by 400,000 and property crimes by 2 million. FBI crime-clearance figures released in October showed youths last year account for just 5% of the nation’s homicides and 12% of its violent crimes, the lowest percentages on record.

It isn’t just conservatives who perpetrate demographic fallacies. Recently, Marc Mauer, assistant director of the liberal Sentencing Project, contended that legislation mandating longer prison sentences for repeat offenders such as three-strikes laws “has contributed to a rapid aging of the California prison system” by locking up older convicts “whose crime production was already on the decline.” Mauer declared that crime was better controlled by imprisoning young people, the “known offenders.”

But this is wrong on all counts. The prison population’s aging isn’t because of three-strikes laws. It results from two obvious, yet ignored, long-term trends: skyrocketing felony arrests and recidivism among older felons, and declining crime among younger groups.

Figures from the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center show that in 1980 about 25,000 Californians ages 40 and older were arrested in felony cases; in 2001, 92,000. Prison admissions of felons ages 40 and older rose from 1,200 in 1980 to nearly 9,000 in 2001. An additional 27,000 California parole violators over age 40 were returned to prison in 2001, five times more than in the 1980s. Nearly all of California’s over-40 prison population was sentenced for offenses committed within the last three years.

Meanwhile, felony arrests of California teens plunged from 148,000 in 1980 to 106,000 in 2001, topping national declines. Yet, because crime authorities rigidly insist that adults “age out of their crime-prone years” by 30, the graying of America’s criminals has gone mostly unnoticed. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention finally broke the official silence: “Juvenile superpredators are more myth than reality,” it declared. “The age group with the greatest increase in violent crime arrest rates is persons in their 30s and 40s.”

The middle-aged crime scourge is devastating. Prisons across the United States, especially in California, overflow with aging addicts, burglars, embezzlers and domestic abusers. California -- which spent $1.3 billion in 2001 caging inmates older than 40 -- and the rest of the nation remain woefully unprepared to manage mushrooming numbers of older convicts whose health costs may be staggering.

Advocates of tougher sentences and cutbacks in prison rehabilitation services failed to anticipate today’s murder and violence surge, as tens of thousands of parolees are released every year without drug treatment or job prospects.

Nevertheless, crime and law enforcement authorities continue to repeat the same alarmism that teenagers, particularly dark-skinned ones, augur more crime. Yes, blaming unpopular demographic groups is routine, wins funding and shields policymakers from accountability for ineffective strategies. But crime authorities’ elevation of anti-youth prejudice over science and their warping of data to fit ideological ends remain a disservice to California and the nation that can only be termed criminal.