Washington Post

On Crime, Youth Serves Up Some Good News

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By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Washington Post
Tuesday, April 9, 2002; Page A17

Hey, the kids really are all right.

For most of the past two decades, that had been in considerable doubt. Between 1980 and 1994, crime rates soared, led by horrific surges in juvenile violent crime that spawned agonized headlines about “kids killing kids” — a phrase that appeared in no fewer than 370 news stories in 1994 alone.

But suddenly and inexplicably, the crime rate plummeted — even as the number of juveniles increased. And the rate of juvenile crimes led the decline, researchers Jeffrey Butts and Jeremy Travis report in a major study released recently by the Urban Institute.

The numbers documenting the rise and fall of crime by youngsters are nothing short of astonishing.

Juvenile arrests for murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault grew 64 percent between 1980 and 1994. Juvenile arrests for murder jumped 99 percent.

Researchers predicted that an even larger crime wave was building. That’s because the population of Americans ages 10 to 17, which had declined through the 1980s, was expected to grow by more than 20 percent in the next two decades.

Well, so much for predictions.

Butts and Travis of the institute’s Justice Policy Center say that after 1994, the violent crime rate fell for six straight years. And, according to data just released by the the FBI, “the rate of juvenile violent crime in 2000 was lower than at any time in the previous two decades,” Butts and Travis report. “Youth accounted for 32 percent of the increase in violent crime arrests between 1980 and 1994, but they generated 58 percent of the subsequent decline.”

And remember: This decline occurred at the same time that the number of juveniles was increasing from about 27 million to 31 million.

Social scientists who couldn’t predict the decline are now trying to explain it. The strong economy, growing intolerance to violent behavior, get-tough sentencing practices and changes in the drug market are among the popular theories.

Butts and Travis aren’t sure who is right. “We may never know the exact reasons,” they acknowledge.