Researchers debate why violent crime in the United States suddenly dropped in the 1990s, but one fact all researchers endorse is that the overall decline in violent crime probably had much to do with falling rates of youth crime. This brief report from the Justice Policy Center examines the recent crime drop and asks how much of the decrease seen between 1995 and 1999 can be attributed to juveniles (under age 18) and older youth (ages 18 to 24). Using the most recent data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the analysis demonstrates that not only did America’s violent crime drop continue through 1999, falling youth crime accounted for most of the overall decline.
Ater a decade of growth, the incidence of violent crime in America suddenly began to drop in the mid-1990s.  Criminologists propose various reasons for the sudden turnaround in violent crime. Explanations include a strong economy, changing demographics, changes in the market for illegal drugs and the use of firearms, expanded imprisonment, policing innovations, and a growing cultural intolerance for violent behavior (see Blumstein and Wallman, 2000).
Regardless of which explanation one favors, it is clear that previous increases as well as recent decreases in violent crime were disproportionately generated by the nation’s youth. Criminal behavior has always been more prevalent among young people. Thus, studies of changing crime patterns need to distinguish juvenile crime and youth crime from crime by adults.  This report examines the most recent FBI data about police arrests and answers two important questions: 1) Did the crime drop that began in the mid-1990s continue through 1999? and, 2) How much of the drop in violent crime can be attributed to juveniles and youth under age 25?
1. The year thought to be the beginning of the crime decline varies depending on which data elements are used to measure violent crime. This report defines the peak year of violent crime in the United States as 1995, when the national number of arrests for Violent Crime Index offenses reached a high point of nearly 800,000 arrests in one year. By 1999, total violent crime arrests had fallen to 644,770.
2. The term “juvenile” is used throughout this report to describe all offenders under age 18 although this is not the legal definition of the term. Some states extend the legal status of “juvenile” only through age 15 (CT, NC, and NY). Others extend it only through age 16 (GA, IL, LA, MA, MI, MO, NH, SC, TX, and WI). Law enforcement data usually include only the age of offenders and not their legal status.
Number of Arrests
This report focuses on data about arrests. It would be preferable to analyze crimes reported to police rather than arrests made by police, but national information about reported crimes is not available by different age categories. Many reported crimes are never resolved by an arrest. Thus, the age of the offender is unknown. Still, examining the age profile of those arrested can reveal much about the relative contribution of young people to crime patterns.
In 1999, U.S. law enforcement agencies made an estimated 14 million arrests. Of these, 17 percent involved juveniles under age 18. Another 28 percent involved youth between the ages of 18 and 24.
The number of arrests involving juveniles in 1999, 2.5 million, was 9 percent lower than the number of arrests in 1995. Arrests for many of the most serious offenses fell substantially between 1995 and 1999. During this time period arrests for murder dropped 56 percent among juveniles, robbery arrests were 39 percent lower, burglary arrests fell 23 percent, and juvenile arrests for motor vehicle theft were down 35 percent.
The small size of the total decline in juvenile arrests (-9 percent) was largely due to the influence of growing arrests in some of the less serious offenses. For example, arrests for driving under the influence were up 36 percent, liquor law violations grew 31 percent, and arrests for curfew violations increased 9 percent.
Studies of changes in juvenile crime should always consider the possibility that fluctuations in the juvenile population may be responsible for trends seen in the number of arrests reported by law enforcement.
This was not the case during the recent crime drop. Even controlling for changes in the population, the rate of decline in juvenile arrests outpaced that of other age groups.
For every 100,000 youth age 10 to 17 in the U.S. population during 1999, there were more than 300 juvenile arrests for one of the four Violent Crime Index offenses (i.e., murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault, and robbery).
The violent crime arrest rate fell among all age groups between 1995 and 1999. The juvenile arrest rate for Violent Crime Index offenses in 1999 was about two-thirds the rate of 1995. The rate in 1999, however, was still 10 percent higher than the rate of 1980.
The arrest rate for murder charges also fell among all age groups between 1995 and 1999. Among older offenders, the drop continued a downward trend that resulted in declines between 1980 and 1995 as well. The decline among juveniles brought the murder arrest rate to a level lower than that of 1980, while the rate among older youth (ages 18 to 24) was approximately the same in 1999 as in 1980.
Despite the sharp drop in violent crime arrests between 1995 and 1999, arrest rates for older youth (ages 18 to 24) remained considerably higher than the rates of juveniles.
The violent crime arrest rate for offenders between the ages of 18 and 24 was more than double the rate for juveniles in 1999.
By 1999, the violent crime arrest rate for juveniles had fallen nearly to the levels seen during the early 1980s.
The rate of violent crime arrests for adults was relatively unchanged throughout the 1990s when compared to rates among juveniles and older youth.
Juvenile Proportion of All Arrests
When arrests involving juvenile offenders decline more sharply than arrests involving older offenders, the relative proportion of juveniles among all those arrested necessarily falls. This effect can be seen in the FBI data on juvenile arrests as a proportion of all arrests for various offenses.
In 1999, juveniles accounted for 16 percent of all arrests for Violent Crime Index offenses, down considerably from 1995 when juveniles accounted for 19 percent of violent crime arrests.
Juveniles accounted for 9 percent of murder arrests in 1999, compared with the period 1993 through 1995 when they made up 15 to 17 percent of murder arrests.
In contrast to these patterns, juveniles accounted for a substantially larger proportion of arrests for weapon offenses in 1999 than they did at any time prior to 1990.
As a whole, arrest rates for weapon offenses declined between 1994 and 1999, but both juveniles and adults experienced similarly declining arrest rates. Thus, the percentage of juveniles among all weapon arrests was relatively unchanged.
Youth Contribution to the Crime Drop
The central question posed by this report is “how much did juveniles and older youth contribute to the national crime drop between 1995 and 1999?” This question can be answered by examining the relative increases and decreases in arrests between 1985 and 1999.
According to Crime in the United States, there were 796,230 total arrests for Violent Crime Index offenses in 1995 and 644,770 in 1999 (national estimates). Thus, there were 151,460 fewer violent crime arrests in 1999 than in 1995 (all ages combined).
The contribution of juveniles to the total drop in violent crime arrests can be estimated by calculating the decrease in the number of arrests involving juveniles and comparing it to the decrease for offenders of all ages.
The results of this comparison suggest that juveniles accounted for a decline of 43,800 arrests — i.e., 29 percent of the overall decrease in violent crime arrests between 1995 and 1999.
Older youth, on the other hand, accounted for 23 percent of the decline, while adults ages 25 and older accounted for 49 percent of the total decrease.
In contrast, juvenile offenders accounted for 22 percent of the increase in violent crime arrests between 1985 and 1995, while older youth accounted for 17 percent. Thus, juveniles and older youth combined made up 38 percent of the increase in violent crime arrests between 1985 and 1995, but they accounted for 51 percent of the subsequent drop in violent crime between 1995 and 1999.
Blumstein, Alfred and Joel Wallman (Editors) (2000). The Crime Drop in America. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (Annual). Crime in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
Snyder, Howard and Melissa Sickmund (1999). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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The director of the
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is Dr. Adele Harrell.
Jeffrey A. Butts (Ph.D., University of Michigan) is a senior research associate with the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, where he is involved in research and evaluation projects on policies and programs for youthful offenders, including federally funded evaluations of teen courts and juvenile drug courts. Prior to joining the Urban Institute in 1997, he was a senior research associate at the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
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The Urban Institute is a nonprofit policy research organization established in Washington, D.C., in 1968. The Institute’s goals are to sharpen thinking about society’s problems and efforts to solve them, improve government decisions and their implementation, and increase citizens’ awareness about important public choices.
The methods used in this report to adjust FBI sample-based data and create national arrest estimates were developed by Dr. Howard Snyder of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. The author is grateful to the Justice Policy Center colleagues who provided comments and reviews of this report: Adele Harrell, Jeremy Travis, Calvin Johnson, and David Williams.