We Still Don’t Know Why Juvenile Crime Peaked, Fell, But Let’s Stop Doing Dumb Things

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Judge Steven Teske(Part 8)

It’s one thing to talk about and describe trends in juvenile justice, but it’s an entirely different creature when trying to explain why they occur.

After juvenile crime peaked in the ’90s, the trend has been fewer kids locked up than at any time in nearly 20 years, including violent crime at a 30-year low. This massive drop has spurred much discussion generating some pretty interesting theories, none of which by themselves can take credit for this drop.

So if none alone can take credit, we are left with either a “perfect storm” scenario or we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking why crime went down, maybe we should be asking why it went up.

A glance at the crime rates during this period looks like an 8.9 spike on a seismograph. But like all earthquakes, what spikes on the seismograph must level off when the quake ends and all returns to normal. What if the spike in crime that reached an all-time high in the mid-’90s was a “crimequake”? It struck without warning, peaked and returned to normalcy like any quake.

Still, I doubt we will ever find the epicenter of this crimequake because there are just as many reasons given for the quake’s origin as for its end. Like those given for its end, none of the origin theories by themselves can take credit for its demise.

If we can’t explain why the crimequake occurred, maybe we should shift our attention to what we did in response to the crimequake. Our fear that a wave of  “superpredator” kids would unleash carnage never seen before led us down a path to enact laws to increase the frequency and duration of incarceration by treating them as adults.

But the wave never came and the crimequake ended, but the incarceration didn’t. It’s not easy to explain why we are quick to change laws we think will fix a problem, but slow to fix the law that not only failed to fix the problem but made matters worse.

Jeffrey Butts at John Jay College of Criminal Justice made a similar observation, commenting that it’s not the why (crime increased), but the what (should we do if it returns).

The “why” and the “what” are like apples and oranges — no matter how much crime increases in the future, there are some things we just don’t do to kids.

There are certain truths about what not to do to kids that were once self-evident, but today are universally evident. Jerome Miller acted on what was self-evident when he shuttered the training schools of Massachusetts because they were more harmful than helpful, and today the empirical studies have validated his actions.


If we can’t explain why crime spiked and suddenly dropped, we should consider what we did wrong and why, and use that information to enact policies and practices that will withstand a future crimequake so we don’t do more harm to kids.

And this can’t happen unless we acknowledge that our reaction to the fallacious outcry of a wave of superpredator kids was a monumental disaster. Not just because the wave never came, but because increasing incarceration had little to nothing to do with reducing the crime rate.

In looking back at that superpredator scare moment, it created a slippery slope from which legislators slipped and slid in their sausage-making process, sending many kids to adult prisons in hopes of incapacitating them before they could wreak havoc on our communities.

The slippery slope argument insists that if event X has occurred, therefore event Y will inevitably happen. The failure to understand event X is what puts folks on that slippery slope. When we don’t ask why before acting, we risk making hasty generalizations that lead to faulty problem-solving.

The solutions are typically found in the problem. If we fail to analyze the problem, we will likely slide down the slippery slope into an abyss of unintended consequences that compounds the original problem.

The assumption that the rise in juvenile crimes in the ’90s was a sign that a wave of violent crime was coming our way set in motion the “either/or fallacy” — We either lock these kids up or there will be killing, raping and pillaging in our communities.

The hardliners, who rigidly support increasing the severity of punishment (prison) for kids and increasing its duration, believe incarceration will not only reduce crime by removing scary kids from the community, but will deter future crime.

They seized this opportunity to push for tougher sentencing by clamoring that either we incarcerate more kids or Armageddon is upon us. It didn’t matter that no one could explain why crime went up, and it didn’t matter that treating kids like adults would make matters worse.

I know that hindsight is 20/20, but there are some things that are a matter of common sense, which often escapes us when fear abounds. The thought of kids hanging out and having a conversation weighing the pros and cons of committing a crime is so naïve it would be great fodder for a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Assuming for a silly moment that kids contemplate consequences, it would likely go down like this:

Two kids are hanging out at the street corner and a third walks up displaying a gun and says, “Hey man, let’s go hit a lick.”

Kid number one excitedly shouts, “Yeah man, let’s jack-roll someone.”

The second one says, “Hey man, we need to think about this.” (I hope you’re rolling your eyes at this point.)

“Think about what?” says the one holding the gun. “We got ourselves a gun. It’s easy money.”

The second one retorts, “I read in the newspaper [another eye-roller] that juvies will be DOCed in the big house with adults for at least 10 years, and no parole.”

“No s–t,” says the kid toting the gun.

“No s–t,” he replies with sarcasm.

Waving his gun with a grin, the kid quips, “I guess we better not get caught.”

And they high-five and walk off to hit a lick for some easy money.

Assuming for another eye-rolling moment that kids know the law, are hardliners so naïve that they believe kids care?

Studies conducted on adult felons reveal they have a poor understanding of crime and punishment laws. So imagine the depths of ignorance among kids.

During my 18 years on the bench, every kid I had to inform that he would be treated as an adult, and if convicted would spend a minimum of 10 years in an adult prison, reacted like a deer caught in headlights and then the tears followed.

But worse than being naïve is being ignorant. Hardliners enjoy informing the rest of us that incarceration WAS responsible for the dramatic decline in crimes.

But researchers can’t point to anything in particular to explain the dramatic drop in crime, and that includes incarceration. Notwithstanding Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s assertion in a lecture that incarceration was responsible for about 35 percent of the decline in crime, researchers have insisted that incarceration was responsible for only a 5 percent reduction in crime. To this day its impact has had a zero effect in crime reduction.

I can’t say for sure where the senator got his “35 percent” figure. But if I were a betting man, I would put my money on the economist and “Freakonomics” co-author Steven Levitts, who reported in 2004 that the increase in incarceration was responsible for over one-third of the reduction in crime.

However, Levitts later acknowledged that his 2004 findings could have been affected “… by the wide divergence in the frequency and severity of offending across criminals,” and therefore this could result in a “… sharply declining marginal benefits of incarceration.”

In other words, the “more incarceration equals less crime” theory subscribed to by hardliners is a bust when it hits a point of diminishing returns. That’s when widening the net of incarceration catches those less culpable in spreading crime, and it no longer yields the intended results.

The irony in pitching more incarceration is that it risks the very thing we don’t want — another crimequake.

I wonder if the recent uptick in crime in some major urban centers may in part be caused by the  criminogenic effect of prisons on the millions of nonviolent, low-risk offenders incarcerated alongside violent/high-risk offenders over the years — a phenomena I refer to as hyper-recidivism.

Be careful who you incarcerate, you may not like what comes out.

The criminogenic effect on kids is real because studies show that kids treated as adults are more likely to reoffend than youth treated in the juvenile justice system.

If the tremors of crime today are any indication of a crimequake tomorrow, it’s best we hang onto what we know works to avoid slipping down the slope into that abyss.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.

One thought on “We Still Don’t Know Why Juvenile Crime Peaked, Fell, But Let’s Stop Doing Dumb Things

  1. JJIE reported more than 3 years ago on why juvenile arrests have fallen to record lows. The answer is lead poisoning prevention. See http://jjie.org/2014/05/19/analysis-is-lead-exposure-the-secret-to-the-rapid-rise-and-fantastic-fall-of-the-juvenile-crime-rate/
    The same pattern has been documented around the world and across centuries. See http://www.ricknevin.com/delinquency.html
    The impact of lead exposure trends is the only crime theory that explains both the rise and the fall in crime rates, in the USA and around the world.