Recent Trends In Juvenile Crime Policy Are Driven By Fear, Not Fact, Says A National Expert On Juvenile Justice

December 09, 1998

WASHINGTON, DC (December 9, 1998) -- In a new report released today, one of the nation's leading authorities on juvenile justice says youth policy in the United States is being driven by deeply flawed analyses of juvenile violence statistics.

University of California at Berkeley Law Professor Franklin Zimring, whose research was funded by the MacArthur Foundation and published by Oxford University Press, says a serious misreading of youth violence statistics has been driving a nationwide trend toward much harsher approaches to juvenile justice than are necessary. According to Zimring, unwarranted fear has led to a proposed national youth policy that is preoccupied with crime control concerns about children who are currently under five-years-old. Zimring describes it as policy based on fear rather than fact.

Zimring's analysis of juvenile crime statistics for the period 1980-1996, and reinforced by data just released by the FBI, shows juvenile crime has been on the decline for the past four years. But more important, says Zimring, is the fact that over the past 20 years, there has been no sustained trend of either increases or decreases in juvenile crime to support the nationwide toughening of laws affecting adolescents in trouble with the law.

"We should celebrate the recent sharp decline in certain kinds of violent juvenile crime," says Zimring. "The fact is that youth in 1998 are no more prone to violence than were teens 20 years ago. There have been up and down cycles in the period, but we have been breaking even in the longer term."

In his report, Zimring presents a thorough review of the data--national juvenile crime statistics and trends, populations demographics, public policy trends, and media coverage of juvenile violence for the years 1980 to 1996. His conclusions from this data provide important new information about juvenile crime rates, and what the data does--and doesn't--suggest about the future. Among his findings:

According to Zimring, the prediction of a "coming storm of juvenile violence" is science fiction rather than social science. The only conclusion to be drawn from the data with any confidence is that there was no consistent pattern of youth arrests for violent crime during the years 1980-1996.

In recent years, virtually every state has enacted laws designed to cope with a worsening general pattern of violent juvenile crime that Zimring asserts does not exist. One of the most popular state-level measures has been lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults. Many local governments are placing new restrictions on youth. And Congress gave serious consideration this year to a law that, if passed, would have enabled federal prosecutors rather than judges to decide when to prosecute in adult courts juveniles accused of serious crime, and provided federal financial incentives for punitive state juvenile justice policies.

"Legislative activity around the nation has been motivated by the sense of a national youth violence emergency," he says, "but a closer look at the data that supposedly supports these fears shows that the evidence of a juvenile crime wave, either current or on the horizon, is no more substantial that the evidence that supports the existence of the Loch Ness Monster."

Zimring says the fallacy of predicting future arrest rates from past history is obvious when the historical data are examined. During the 1980-1996 period, there were only three times in which the arrest rates for any one of four violent offenses (homicide, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery) rose or fell for more than three consecutive years. Arrest rates often change substantially in a short period of time, which indicates, says Zimring, that the best predictor of the crime rate ten years in the future will be the rates that we see eight or nine years in the future. "We learn from the data since 1980 that we cannot predict rates to come with any confidence at all," he says.

Some widely-publicized projections of future behavior from these data are even more flawed, Zimring says. One much-trumpeted prediction, for example, claimed that, if current trends play out in the future, there will be an additional 270,000 extremely violent young people by the year 2010. Zimring notes that the statistic, widely reported in the national media, included all young people under 18 -- even babies. "The only thing we can say with any certainty about the number of young people age 18 and under between now and the year 2010 is how many of them there will be," he says. "We can't predict what they will do."

"If the only thing you discuss about a future generation is its projected crime rate, then the automatic and unjust conclusion will be that an entire generation of American children is bad news," says Zimring. "With this kind of pseudo-determinism, if the number of violent youth is predetermined, why bother to improve education, health care, and other social structures for children?"

In his report, Zimring recommends that policymakers adopt youth policies that includes far more than a focus on crime. He also urges that programs designed to improve the lives of young people not be lumped under the category of crime prevention. Such careless labeling, he says, defeats efforts designed to encourage the development of young people as effective citizens and our future leaders.

Franklin Zimring is William G. Simon Professor of Law and Director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of The Changing Legal World of Adolescence (1982) and co-author of many books on law and legal institutions, including Incapacitation: Penal Confinement and the Restraint of Crime (1995), and Crime Is Not the Problem (1997).

Zimring's research is funded by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He is also a member of the MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, a national panel of social scientists, legal scholars, and legal practitioners. The network is studying the effective and appropriate treatment of juvenile offenders within the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
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