"Our youngest career criminals are getting away with the most heinous crimes over and over again, and it's not just gang warfare," thundered Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla. "Wake up!" Soon after, the House overwhelmingly passed a GOP-sponsored juvenile crime bill that toughens federal sentencing of minors and attempts to force the states to try ever-increasing numbers of youth as adults.
It seemed apparent, as the New York Times reported on last Thursday's vote, that legislators were unaware, or deliberately ignoring, recent Justice Department figures showing that juvenile crime has dropped. "The impression lingers," the Times noted, "that crime by juveniles is out of control."
The numbers may have come as a surprise to the nation's lawmakers, but not to those "experts" who painted frightening pictures of a new generation of "superpredators." They are now busy backpedaling, which would be somewhat comical -- except that their old pronouncements, as the House vote makes clear, are still being used to justify ever more draconian policies directed against younger and younger kids.
It has been interesting to watch some of the country's best-known researchers backing off. For example, Princeton Professor John Dilulio, who warned of a "rising wave of superpredators" primed to prey on society, has recently adopted a more sober tone. Most "juvenile offenders are not guilty of repeated or random acts of serious violence," he wrote last month in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. "Most kids who get into serious trouble need adult guidance. And they won't find suitable role models in prison."
Taking a somewhat different tack is Northeastern University Professor James Allen Fox, who last year warned of a "teenage time bomb" that would explode into a "blood bath of teenage violence." After the new Justice Department data were released, Fox simply proclaimed that he "never meant there would be a blood bath. Some of it was part of getting people's attention."
Indeed it was. Dilulio, who worked closely with the press to spread his message, even donned a leather jacket and posed before a graffiti-covered wall to illustrate a story on "A Teenage Time Bomb" for Time magazine. Such alarums had the desired effect, with politicians rushing to dismantle the juvenile justice system. Citing these experts' "statistics" as justification, they moved to erase the distinctions between young and adult offenders, which means that many children are going to be doing time in the same prisons as hard-core adult criminals.
Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., led the way last year with the Violent Youth Predator Act, reintroduced to the full House last week under the more restrained title the Juvenile Crime Control Act. As passed last Thursday, the bill calls for confining children as young as 13 with adult offenders, denying federal funds to states that do not try 13-year-olds who commit certain crimes as adults and abolishing the federal agency charged with preventing juvenile crime.
But the data produced by Dilulio that's been used to justify such drastic measures has consistently failed to withstand scrutiny. Juveniles accounted for a smaller percentage of arrests and committed a smaller share of serious crimes in 1992 than in 1982. In 1994, fewer than one in 200 juveniles in America were arrested for a violent offense.
The one area in which juvenile crime has shown a marked and significant increase over the past decade is handgun killings. To his credit, Professor Fox has consistently alerted policy makers to the role of guns in juvenile violence. Yet McCollum has voted against laws designed to curb gun use, and Dilulio has written that "the it's-all-guns school makes such noise by firing blanks."
But blanks are not being fired by inner-city youth. From 1984 to 1994, handgun killings by kids increased fourfold, while most categories of juvenile crime declined or stayed steady (including homicides that did not involve a handgun). And these tend to be impulsive acts abetted by cheap, available handguns.
Academics and "experts" should have the guts to accept responsibility for being wrong. They need to go to the media and say, "It's the guns, stupid!" They should encourage Congress to impose the same standards on guns made in America as they do on imported guns -- and so end production of most Saturday Night Specials.
They also need to preach crime prevention, not only punishment. It is no secret that children who go to good schools, receive quality heath care, have good recreational opportunities and eat well are much less likely to matriculate in the world of crime.
If the experts fail, we're likely to see hundreds of thousands of American children and youth prosecuted as adults. And then, as one children's advocate argued in opposition to the House bill, "It's not clear what's left."