A Kiddie Crime Epidemic? Hardly

MIKE MALES is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

‘WE ARE here to say, ‘America, we have a problem,’ ” Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton told the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington last month. “Crime is coming back, and it has a new and troubling element … a youthful population that is largely disassociated from the mainstream of America.”

According to Bratton, the nation needs to “refocus on this gathering storm of crime.”

But go to the Los Angeles Police Department’s website and you’ll see a different story: “Crime has been reduced 15% in the past year,” it beams. The LAPD’s Sept. 9 report shows drops in homicide (down 4%), rape (down 4%) and overall violent crime (down 1%) compared with the same period in 2005, on top of a 28% decline in violent crime from 2004 to 2005.

The fact is, violent crime in and around Los Angeles today is at its lowest point in 35 years, according to figures from the Criminal Justice Statistics Center in the California attorney general’s office.

This year is headed for the fewest homicides since 1971, when the city had a million fewer people.

As for the new and troubling youth population Bratton is so worried about, it too may be much smaller than he seems to be suggesting. Whether more dissociated youth inhabit Los Angeles today than, say, back in 1969’s Manson family days is hard to say, but what is clear is that they are not reflected in the LAPD’s latest crime figures.

In fact, the figures show the least criminal and violent younger generation since accurate statistics were first compiled. Rates of criminal arrest of L.A. youth in 2005 were staggeringly lower than 30 years ago: Homicide is down 55%; rape, 81%; robbery, 21%; assault, 44%; property felonies, 83%; drug offenses, 52%; and misdemeanors, 60%.

The huge decline in homicide, violence and crime by L.A. youth over the last decade coincided with record increases in the teenage population and more youths on the streets than ever before. Fewer teens today are incarcerated in state and local juvenile facilities than at any time in at least half a century.

Other California cities have also seen impressive, three-decade plunges in crime by youths. Contrary to claims that urban teenagers have become more violent and criminal, youthful arrest rates for both violent and property offenses in San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento and Oakland all are sharply lower today — down by 25% to 80%, depending on offense and time period — than they were in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s.

Contradicting warnings that urban youth crime has spread to suburbs, violence and crime by youths in areas surrounding California’s major cities also declined rapidly in recent decades to the lowest levels ever recorded.

But reality morphs in Washington, where federal funds are disbursed and the national media are ever-eager to trumpet alarms about youth. Bratton was one of many police chiefs at the Washington forum who played the “youth card” to pitch for more money and officers even as their departments’ statistics show much calmer realities back home.

“We are turning the country over to our young people, and they are killing each other,” said Providence, R.I., Police Chief Dean Esserman, claiming a spike in robbery shootings. “Violence has become gratuitous.”

But crime statistics posted on the websites of the Providence Police Department and the Rhode Island State Police reveal that violent crime rates and juvenile violence arrests in Providence fell in the years 2003 to 2005, including for robbery, compared with what they were in the previous three years.

In city after city where police and news stories proclaimed soaring juvenile gunplay, official crime statistics showed nothing of the sort. In fact, tabulations of arrestees by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center show that in 2004 and 2005, criminal arrestees were older than in the past. The median age of a violent felon nationally in 2004 was 30, the oldest level in half a century, up from 27.8 in 1990 and 26.3 in 1975. The latest FBI crime clearance statistics show juveniles committed fewer than 5% of the nation’s homicides, the smallest proportion ever recorded.

Los Angeles County provides a stark contrast: 35,000 juvenile felony arrests in 1975, 26,000 in 1995, 18,000 in 2005. Their over-40 parents’ generation has gone the other way: 9,000 felonies in 1975, 24,000 in 1995, 35,000 in 2005. How can law enforcement, interest groups, academics and the news media continue to ignore such striking trends?

The subterfuge is accomplished simply: Even when crime is down and youth arrests are plummeting, there is always some offense in some city in some year that rose when compared to some previous year. For example, Los Angeles’ teenage homicide and assault rates dropped sharply from 2004 to 2005, and robbery arrest rates have plunged 50% in the last decade — but robbery rates did rise by 3% in 2005.

Bratton, law enforcement and other interests may hype imaginary epidemics of “youth violence” as cynical political ploys to win attention and funding, but there’s no doubt that most Americans (police included) honestly believe today’s young people are more threatening and violent than those of the past. Why is this? Why do officials find it so pathetically easy to incite and re-incite visceral fears of the young even as solid evidence shows violent offenders are getting older?

Perhaps the answer lies in simple demographics. In a state and nation in which overwhelmingly white older generations confront younger generations that are rapidly becoming (indeed, in California, have already become) mostly Latino, black and Asian, raising the alarm of “youth violence” arouses elders’ worst anxieties that racial change means more crime and chaos.

If all we elders can do is to keep reviving the century-old fear of youth and minorities while ignoring the serious crime threat in older generations, then maybe we would be better off turning the country over to young people.