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The Truth About Crime

Myth of Teenage Violence vs. Real Adult Menace

September 15, 1996|Michael A. Males | Michael A. Males, a social ecology doctoral student at UC Irvine, is the author of "The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents" (Common Courage Press)

IRVINE — When a 3-year-old Los Angeles girl was murdered in an apparent gang killing a year ago, nationwide media coverage exploded. When a 3-year-old Beverly Hills boy was murdered by his 37-year-old father three weeks later, notice was scant. Two tragic killings of small children. One cited as the signature of today's brutal young, the other relatively ignored.

Candidates of both parties and experts of all stripes proclaim skyrocketing violence among America's youth as the nation's most urgent crisis. Images of "children killing children" and "kids more violent at younger ages" grip the national psyche. Candidates compete to be tougher on teen crime. Experts declare the rise in youth violence to be all the more baffling and frightening because adult crime has not increased.

Ignored in the furor is that California--particularly Los Angeles--displays a stunningly different pattern, one that challenges conventional wisdom. The state's violent-crime increase in the last decade has centered not on teenagers, but on adults older than 30. Our grade-school kids are less violent today than at any time in the last 15 years. Since 1990, violent felony (including murder) rates have fallen among all age groups--particularly L.A. adolescents.

California's violent criminals are getting older. In 1995, the average age of violent arrestees was 28, up from 25 in 1985. From 1985 to 1995, the violent-crime arrest rate per capita among teens rose by 40%. But violent-crime rates rose by 50% among 20- to 29-year-olds, 111% among those in their 30s, and 114% among those older than 40. In 1995, 45,000 Californians in their 30s were arrested for violence, more than those age 10 to 19.

The concurrent explosion in serious assaults by older California adults--39,000 in 1985, 107,000 in 1995--is what is driving the state's violence increase. As L.A. Police Det. Craig Rhody said, "Assault with a deadly weapon is a murder that just didn't happen" due to "luck or fate." State and national figures indicate much of the rising adult violence is directed at children and youths.

Last February, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that nine of 10 murdered children (under age 12), and six in 10 murdered teens (age 12 to 17), are killed by grown-ups, not by other "children." In the last decade, the rate of "adults killing children" has increased by 50%. Many who deplored the 330,000 felony and misdemeanor violence arrests of youths in 1993 expressed no similar alarm about the 370,000 substantiated violent and sexual abuses of youths inflicted by their parents.

In California, domestic violence represents the largest single category of weapons-related crime. In the Los Angeles area, officers responded to a record-high 88,000 domestic-violence calls involving weapons in 1994. Children are far more likely to be household-violence victims than adults. A 1994 Department of Justice study found parents murder teenage children six times more often than the other way around. Especially troubling figures from the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect and the Centers for Disease Control show that a youth is a dozen times safer from being murdered at school, around hundreds of peers, than at home with a couple of grown-ups.

How, then, does the public get the idea that kids--who account for just 14% of violent crime arrests in California--represent an apocalyptic menace? Part of the problem is media sensationalizing. Recent studies by Berkeley researchers found that two-thirds of California's big-city broadcast-news stories on violence involved youths. Newspapers and magazines are also brimming with "teenage mayhem" stories.

No wonder a 1994 Gallup poll concluded "because of recent news coverage of violent crimes committed by juveniles, the public has a greatly inflated view of the amount of violent crime committed by people under the age of 18." That survey found the average adult believes that youths commit 43% of all violent crime, three times the true number.

One can expect psychologists and police officers, who often rely on personal experiences and anecdotal evidence concerning troubled youths, to brand today's kids as uniquely scary. Last week's appalling crime is always scarier than 10 appalling crimes of 10 years ago. It is scholars and agency officials who should be analyzing trends and supplying context to the youth-violence debate. Instead, they often fan the hysteria.

Consider these myth-busting facts revealed in the California Department of Justice's annual "Crime & Delinquency in California" reports and 1995 county crime updates:

* Teenage and adult violence show identical trends, rising and falling in tandem statewide and in major counties.

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