American youth not as violent as suspected, says UC Berkeley professor, a leading legal authority on juvenile justice

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- A child opens fire on a schoolyard, killing and maiming his young peers. A teen-age boy unloads a weapon on his family, leaving them to die. Gang members drive down a neighborhood street, shooting at anyone in their path.

There are plenty of such shocking stories in the news, in the public's memory and on the minds of politicians who push for more get-tough policies aimed at wayward youth. But while some leaders - fueled by predictions of a teen population boom - foresee a juvenile crime wave, a new book by a University of California, Berkeley, law professor calls those prognostications "science fiction."

In his book "American Youth Violence" (Oxford University Press, 1998), Frank Zimring provides hard statistics that suggest American youths are no more violent in the late 1990s than 20 years before.

"There have been up and down cycles in the period," he said, "but we have been breaking even in the longer term."

In his new book, Zimring reviews national juvenile statistics, population demographics, public policy developments and media coverage of juvenile violence from 1980 to 1997. He reveals that:

· Since 1980, arrest rates for juveniles, ages 13-17, accused of rape and robbery shows no identifiable trend, either up or down. Rates are currently lower than they were in 1980.

· Most of the increase in the arrest rate for aggravated assault for juveniles during the period of 1984 to 1992 was not the result of increased assaults, but a change in the way police report and classify such arrests. This change, which involves a lower threshold for crimes considered aggravated assault, created a crime wave that only occurred on paper.

· The homicide arrest rate for juveniles rose sharply between 1984 and 1992 but fell back by more than one-third by 1996 and, according to just-released FBI figures, dropped an additional 16 percent in 1997.

"Legislative proposals across the country have been motivated by the sense of a national youth violence emergency," said Zimring. "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 than the evidence that supports the existence of the Loch Ness Monster."

In recent years, he said, some lawmakers and policy makers have warned the public that current demographic trends indicate a boom in the adolescent population by the year 2010. Along with that boom, they predict a significant increase in criminal activity and the advent of juvenile superpredators.

The U.S. Census Bureau expects the teen population to grow 16 percent over a 15 year-period that ends in 2010, resulting in 21.5 million teens. But projections that others have extrapolated from those figures are, according to Zimring, "silly."

The book reports that crime trends don't march in step with population trends. In the late 1980s, for example, the rate of youth violence increased while the teen population declined. And following 1993, youth violence decreased as the youth population grew.

Further, Zimring concludes that the projections of a great swell in the youth population are overstated, especially when considering the proportion of teens to the overall population.

The Census Bureau expects the youth population to grow by a little more than one percent a year. The proportion of the U.S. population ages 13-17 will be much lower in 2010 than it was in 1959, toward the end of the lower-crime Eisenhower years.

"Forecasting the coming storm of juvenile justice violence is science fiction," Zimring said, "not science."

Especially disturbing, he said, is that the projections presume a fixed percentage of today's small male children - six percent - is destined to become seriously violent.

Specifically, forecasters conclude that because roughly six percent of juveniles have high levels of juvenile arrest, then six percent of all boys will become serious violent offenders as they reach adolescence in 2010.

Further, according to Zimring, the assertions make no distinction between individuals who might become involved in petty offenses and those who might turn to violent criminal acts - the entire group has been labeled future juvenile superpredators "before they were out of diapers."

The truth is that no one can predict the level of serious criminal activity - homicides, rapes and armed robberies - among future teens, he said. There are too many unknown variables to project forward five - let alone 15 - years.

A particularly dangerous problem with the doomsday prognosticators is their lack of perspective, Zimring said. While concentrating on the small percentage of children who might become involved in criminal activity more than a decade from now, they have largely ignored the vast majority of this new generation that will not grow up to become juvenile criminals.

According to Zimring, since 1996, the only aspect of the youth population in 2010 that has been examined by the U.S. Congress has been juvenile arrests and crime trends.

The public, in general, also lacks an accurate perspective about the level of crime in America, he said. News reports are full of stories about rare events such as the 12 -year-old who kills, Zimring said, and the media are more frequently reporting stories of increasingly younger offenders.

In reality, minors who are 17 1/2 years old have the highest rate of violence compared to other juveniles.

"The closer youth are to adulthood," he said, "the more likely they are to hit you over the head or to kill you, and there's nothing new about that."

A long range look at crime trends in America indicates no need for an overhaul of the juvenile justice system based on crime trends alone, Zimring said, and no need for the public to fear a group of minors who have yet to carry a lunch box to school.

Franklin Zimring is William G. Simon Professor of Law at UC Berkeley and director of the law school's Earl Warren Legal Institute. His previous books include "The Changing Legal World of Adolescence" (1982); "Incapacitation: Penal Confinement and the Restraint of Crime" (1995); and "Crime is not the Problem" (1997).

His research is funded by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He is also a member of the 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 adult justice systems.

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