Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States

Prognosis for the Future

Until recently, the prognosis for greater levels of juvenile violence was bleak. The report Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A Focus on Violence, published in May 1995, concluded that "[i]f violent juvenile crime increased in the future as it has for the past 10 years . . . by the year 2010 the number of juvenile arrests for violent crime will more than double and the number of juvenile arrests for murder will increase nearly 150 percent."

However, more recent data provided by the FBI show that the level of juvenile crime and violence appears to be leveling off, if not falling. The juvenile murder arrest rate, which increased 169 percent between 1983 and the end of 1993, has decreased 23 percent since 1993 and dropped 14 percent in 1995 alone.26 The juvenile violent crime arrest rate decreased 4 percent in 1995, with the greatest decline occurring among juveniles ages 10 to 14.

Observers hailed the new statistics as proof that antiviolence and crime prevention efforts by the administration, law enforcement, schools, and community groups finally were paying off. Other observers concluded that the most violent group of juveniles from the 1980's crack cocaine trade had matured into less violent adults in their twenties.27 Blumstein said that efforts to get guns out of the hands of young people in some of the crime-heavy cities, such as New York and Boston, were having a noticeable effect.

While policymakers might consider the latest figures as cause for cautious optimism, criminal justice prognosticators are warning that the downturn could merely be a lull before the next storm of juvenile violence. Two of the most vocal espousers of this theory are John J. DiIulio, Jr., a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University (New Jersey), and James Alan Fox, a professor in the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University (Massachusetts). They argue that while a slight downturn in juvenile violence is inevitable, the Nation, in Fox's words, is "on the verge of another crime wave that will last well into the next century."28

Fox states that the level of adult violence has tapered off as baby boomers have aged and "curbed their violent ways" or engaged in "profit-driven crime." Between 1980 and 1985, the homicide rate dropped nationally by approximately 25 percent. At the time, he had assumed that "all else would be equal" and the homicide rate would keep dropping until the end of the 1980's. However, increases in drug trafficking and related handgun violence pushed up the homicide rate among young people by 22 percent during the second half of the 1980's.

"The murder rate is down now only because the homicide rate among adults is overshadowing that of teenagers," Fox said. He also stated that the homicide rate among African-American teenagers is 10 times that of white teenagers. "Too many children are coming out undersocialized and undersupervised," he said. "They have too much free time on their hands. Literally time to kill."

Fox warned that a "baby boomerang" is likely to increase violent crime and drug abuse rates as the Nation enters the next millennium. The boomerang cohort in question is the generation of children born to the baby boomers -- loosely defined as the post-World War II generation that grew up during the 1950's and 1960's.

Currently, there are 39 million children under the age of 10 in the Nation.29 By the year 2005, the number of teens between the ages of 14 and 17 will swell 14 percent, and the number of African-American teens will grow by 17 percent. Teenagers are part of the "prime crime age group" and "given the trends, we may face a bloodbath that makes the 1990's look like the good old days," Fox said.

According to Fox, political leaders must act now to avert the coming crime wave by reinvesting in schools, afterschool care, and family support activities.

A Dissenting Voice

Dire predictions of a coming wave of juvenile violence are of little value because they are based on faulty assumptions and incomplete data, a California law professor believes. Franklin E. Zimring, the William G. Simon Professor of Law and director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, has contended that "[u]sing demographic statistics to project how many kids are going to commit homicide [has] extremely limited utility."30

Generally, "homicides by kids are not well observed by the data," he said. "The data focus only on youth arrests, not on total incidents, victims, or perpetrators. The overall incidence of homicide, which is variable and cyclical, is still a much better predictor of future violence than assumptions based on demographic shifts." Moreover, Zimring said, Fox and DiIulio are basing their predictions on an assumption that a certain percentage of youth will become criminal offenders. In an essay published by the Los Angeles Times, Zimring writes:

When asked the basis for [his prediction], DiIulio points to studies that have shown about 6 percent of all boys are responsible for about half of all the police contacts with minors. In the most important study in Philadelphia, boys in this 6 percent were classified as chronic delinquents because they had five or more police contacts for any cause. Some of these Philadelphia kids had committed violent acts; many had not. In other studies set in smaller cities, almost no life-threatening violence showed up in the youth samples that were responsible for the majority of all police contacts . . . No study of any youth population supports [DiIulio's] projection of predatory violence.31

Though only time will tell whether DiIulio and Fox's predictions will become a reality, juvenile violence has been and continues to be a major concern for policymakers at every level of government. Even with the recent leveling in violent juvenile arrests, the dimensions of the problem are far greater than they were a decade ago.

26. Press Release by U.S. Dep't of Justice (Dec. 12, 1996) (on file with author).

27. Fox Butterfield, After 10 Years, Juvenile Crime Begins to Drop, N.Y. Times, Aug. 9, 1996, at A1.

28. James Alan Fox, Presentation at National Criminal Justice Association Annual Meeting (May 30, 1996); see Fox Butterfield, Crime Continues to Decline, But Experts Warn of Coming 'Storm' of Juvenile Violence, N.Y. Times, Nov. 19, 1995, at A1.

29. DiIulio has put the figure at 40 million. Butterfield, supra note 27.

30. Franklin E. Zimring, Presentation at National Criminal Justice Association Annual Meeting (May 30, 1996).

31. Franklin E. Zimring, Crying Wolf Over Teen Demons, L.A. Times, Aug. 19, 1996, at A17.

Back Contents Next