Salt Lake Tribune – Drop in Juvenile Crime Confounds the Experts


April 28, 2002

WASHINGTON — A decade ago, few criminologists would bet that D’Meon Poke and Alonzo Lewis would be able to stay out of trouble.

Because D’Meon, 16, sought a safe, secure alternative to problems at home, she lives with four other girls in a special dormitory at a school whose mission is to teach and rehabilitate some of the most troubled kids in the capital. As a 17-year-old, black, inner-city male, Alonzo is considered extremely at risk.

The teen-agers attend Maya Angelou Charter School in an area known as Shaw — once one of the District of Columbia’s most violence-wracked neighborhoods. The climate has improved in Shaw — it has fewer shootouts and killings than a few years ago. But drug dealers still operate in front of D’Meon’s and Alonzo’s school, and the streets have plenty of other temptations.

When crack-induced violence suffused Shaw and other inner-city neighborhoods in the early 1990s, criminologists and social workers predicted a larger juvenile crime wave would wash over the nation at the turn of the century as the population of 15- to 19-year-olds soared to 20.3 million.

But the much-feared crime wave, led by murderous “super predator” teens, never happened. Experts don’t know why.

What they do know is that kids like D’Meon and Alonzo are behaving better than their older siblings did as teen-agers because juvenile crime rates, especially for violent offenses like murder, rape and aggravated assault, have plummeted from coast to coast.

The falling crime rate among young people not only has confounded predictions, it also has pushed down the nation’s crime rate.

Between 1994 and 2000, arrests of juveniles for murder dropped 68 percent, for robbery 51 percent, car theft 42 percent and burglary 33 percent.

Pondering Why:

Jeffrey Butts, director of the Urban Institute’s Program of Youth Violence, said the drop in juvenile crime has left experts guessing.

Co-author of a recent report on the trend with senior Urban Institute fellow Jeremy Travis, Butts thinks the booming 1990s economy was largely responsible.

“More kids were growing up in homes where their parents could afford to buy them expensive running shoes, so they did not have to steal them,” Butts said. “But more importantly, more kids were growing up at a time where both parents got up to go to work. . . . Ten years earlier, no one at home had a job, fostering the belief that work was for fools.”

Butts cited other reasons as well, including growing cultural intolerance for violent behavior and greater use of community policing.

Vincent Shiraldi, president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said tougher gun laws and a decrease in handgun production also helped, as did the end of the crack cocaine epidemic that spawned teen gangs and street violence.

“Because there were so many people desperate for money, when you sold crack, you had to pack heat,” Shiraldi said.

Other factors also may account for the drop in kid crime. The fear fostered by the specter of a wave of teen-age predators caused some states to implement harsh measures that included boot camps and greater use of adult courts for juvenile offenders. But intervention programs and special schools aimed at preventing young people from getting into trouble also flourished.

Commissioner Ralph Kelly of Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice believes those programs are largely responsible for a sharp drop in juvenile detentions in his state, from about 600 a few years ago to less than 400 today. In addition, Kentucky was able to close two long-term centers for teen-agers last year without placing any stress on remaining facilities.

“Prevention programs have started to pay off,” Kelly said.

Dennis J. Kehm, a Missouri state judge who is an officer with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court judges, has seen marked changes in his courtroom. Just a few years ago, juvenile murder cases and trials of young people for other violent crimes reached a peak.

“Those were horrible times,” Kelly said.

But now the juvenile defendants in his courtroom generally are accused of lesser crimes.

Kelly credits the changes to diversion programs and efforts to keep first-time offenders from committing new crimes.

“We’re catching them before they get worse,” he said.

Making the Grade:

About half of the students at the Maya Angelou Charter School already have had clashes with the law. Many are on probation.

But D’Meon and Alonzo never committed a crime. D’Meon was unhappy with the violence and chaos at her former public high school — “lots of stuff was happening there,” she said — and took the initiative of researching charter schools on the Internet.

“I wanted to try something new,” she said.

The school D’Meon chose puts its students through grueling 11-hour days of classes, study halls and work. The students are required to earn money working in the school’s kitchen and catering service or in its technology center, teaching computer skills to adults in the neighborhood.

David Domenici, the son of New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, abandoned a career in corporate law to start the school five years ago with James Foreman Jr., son of civil rights leader James Foreman, to try to save imperiled inner-city kids.

The school appears to have some successes. D’Meon, who was failing in her former school, is now a straight-A student on the dean’s list. She hopes to study law at Florida A&M and someday become a judge.

Alonzo wants to attend Virginia Tech or the University of Maryland and study business.

Relaxing Laws:

Hellen Carter, the director of the Maricopa County, Ariz., juvenile probation office, attributes the good news to an improved economy and new intervention programs.

Juvenile arrests for violent crimes in her county fell from a peak of 1,979 in 1993 to 1,359 last year, even as the area’s youth population boomed.

Carter also is glad the Arizona Legislature is considering repealing a law imposed under a 1997 voter initiative that mandated all kids committing certain violent crimes be tried in adult court.

“They were fed a crock that juveniles were out of control and violent crime was rampant,” she said. “People now see that get-tough measures just don’t make sense.”

However, Butts of the Urban Institute worries that the good news about juvenile crime will cause complacency, especially as state and federal law-enforcement priorities shift to anti-terrorism work in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

“Programs for 14-year-olds may not seem as important any more,” Butts said.

Copyright © 2002, Salt Lake Tribune