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Executioner's Myth

Politicians and experts are fond of citing rising youth-crime statistics to justify imposing the ultimate penalty on ever-younger teens. But their death wish has little basis in fact.

May 04, 1997|Michael A. Males | Michael A. Males is the author of "The Scapegoat Generation; America's War on Adolescents" (Common Courage Press)

IRVINE — If Gov. Pete Wilson and Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante's bipartisan willingness to consider executing 13-year-olds doesn't shock crime authorities into rethinking a decade of myth-making about "youth violence," what will it take?

Experts familiar with state and federal crime reports know the politically unpalatable truths: In the last 10 to 20 years, the rate of serious, violent crime has risen faster (much faster in California) among adults than among teens. The rapid growth in teenage violence from 1985 to 1990, particularly homicide, occurred among minorities and was tied to poverty among nonwhite youth. Since 1990, teenage violent crime of all types, especially murder, in California has fallen while adult violent crime continues to rise.

The most baffling mystery is why grown-up violence--especially felony assault by middle-aged whites--is mushrooming, while crime is declining among destitute, inner-city teens. But such mysteries are not what politicians seeking easy scapegoats want to emphasize. So politically attuned experts evade basic points, such as surging adult violence or that a youth under age 18 is three times more likely to be murdered by an adult than by another youth.

Accordingly, politicians extol get-tough panaceas, including executing ever-younger offenders, as (regrettably) necessary to save society from the coming horde of "adolescent super-predators." Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who regards violent abuse of children "by family members" as less important than protecting the public from violence by "evil kids," pushes mass "curfews for young people in shopping malls and public areas" and enforcement of the death penalty "no matter what their age."

No other Western nation puts juveniles to death. By contrast, the United States has executed 300--125 of them age 16 or younger, nearly all of them black. Since 1979, Amnesty International reports, 14 youths have been executed worldwide: nine in the United States, the others in Pakistan, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Barbados.

The latter nations have since outlawed juvenile executions, but U.S. politicians vie to string up eighth-graders considered too young to smoke a last cigarette. Only in the United States could the liberal concept of "crime prevention," now bandied about in Sacramento, mean punishing youths ever more harshly for curfew violations while ignoring the growing poverty, parental violence and adult drug abuse that make home the most dangerous place for kids to be.

The route to America's anti-youth extremism was paved largely with myths concocted by well-intentioned scholars. To defuse racist stereotypes hurled at poor people and minority groups, scholars proclaimed that rising savagery is innate to all teenagers, regardless of income or background.

But the claim that "kids everywhere" are more violent is plain wrong. Violent crime and murder rates among California's 2 million white teens are no higher today than 10 or 20 years ago. Nearly all California's growth in youth violence arrests occurred among minorities.

Failure to confront that uncomfortable reality has led to evasion of even more troubling issues: California's aging white majority is less and less inclined to support funding for schools, universities and social services for the rising nonwhite young at levels as high as those provided previous generations; blocking traditional education and employment pathways for today's poorer youth to escape poverty, and leading to the increasing management of young nonwhite men by police and prisons. Authorities and the media can peddle the fiction that youth violence and the legal system are egalitarian, but the reality is that 90% of California's teenage murder arrestees and a similar proportion of its imprisoned juveniles are nonwhite.

History shows that violence is not inherent in age or race. Rather, it is tied to the stresses of economic adversity. Violence exploded during the Great Depression. Murder peaked in 1933-34 among all races, at levels well above those of 1995-96. The same pattern holds today. Fresno, California's poorest major county, suffers violent crime rates double those of Ventura, one of the state's richest, among whites, nonwhites, young, old, male and female alike. One thing these two very different counties (combined population 1.5 million) share: None of the 25 teens arrested for murder in 1995 was white.

Wilson and other authorities broadcast the single worst falsehood of today's crime debate: Teenage violence has skyrocketed while adult violence is stable. In fact, state crime reports clearly show that, from 1985 to 1995, felony-violence arrest rates rose by 58% among 20- to 29-year-olds; 114% among 30- to 39-year-olds, and 109% among middle-aged (40- to 69-year-olds) people--all far higher than the 38% increase among teens. A doubling in adults' serious violence in 10 years is a bizarre notion of "stable."

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