OP-ED: Are Teenage Crime Proneness and Adolescent Risk Taking Obsolete Myths?

We’ve long heard the theory, from Criminology 101 to the U.S. Supreme Court: teenagers are crime prone (even “deadly”), biologically and developmentally impulsive, peer-driven risk takers, heedless of consequences. The statistics would seem unassailable: in every culture, ages 15-24 or so have higher crime rates than those 25 and older. Of course, authorities once held that excessive crime by African Americans was an innate feature of primitive racial biology and undeveloped culture. Unchastened by history, modern theorists have failed to investigate whether “adolescent risks” are explained not by bio-developmental internalities, but by straightforward externalities. Poverty is linked to many high-risk behaviors, and adolescents and young adults are much poorer than older adults.

OP-ED: The Gun Debate, Round 2: Let’s Learn From Young People, Not Demonize Them

While investigating the “age-crime curve” literature, we discovered a crucial omission: decades of research associating adolescent age with more crime had failed to include the fact that adolescents and young adults — as a group and within every race and locale — suffer poverty rates double those of older adults. When we included poverty as a variable in arrest rates by age the age-crime curve disappeared, as did other supposed “adolescent risks.” Where 45-49 year-olds suffer the same high poverty levels as average 15-19 year-olds, middle-agers display “teenage” levels (or worse) of crime, gun violence, traffic crashes, etc. Conversely, where teens experience low poverty, they do not display “adolescent risks.”

Long-held beliefs that young age is a causal factor in crime and risky behavior appear to be a prejudice, like discredited past efforts to associate violence and race. Gun control is a critical example of how reasoned debate and policy are sabotaged by stigmas against youth. Round 1 of the latest debate was not about realities, but a recitation of myths about what leaders wanted gun violence to be: just a “youth” problem.

California Youth Crime Plunge Challenges Conventional Thinking

Unlike economists, if all criminal justice experts were laid end to end, they actually would reach a conclusion: there’s no way today’s young people could possibly have lower rates of murder, rape, other serious offenses, and all-around criminality than the sainted youth of the 1950s. Just look at the sweeping changes in American childhood: widespread family breakup beginning in the Sixties; escalating poverty levels since the 1970s; the rise of gang and drug cultures in the Eighties; widespread, vastly more explicit popular culture in the 1990s; soaring drug abuse, crime, and imprisonment among their parents’ generation; and defunded schools, services, and programs.

Consider also the fact that there are 6 million more American teenaged youths in 2011 than in 1990, with the fastest growth in racial groups with higher arrest rates. The rapid growth and increasing racial diversity of youth populations is a development two influential crime authorities branded “deadly demographics.” They forecast in 2003 that the United States would endure a skyrocketing youth and young-adult crime epidemic bringing well over 10,000 murders annually. Yet, falling crime numbers were debunking scary predictions. Now, the FBI’s latest 2011 data  shows youth arrests plummeted to lows not seen since the mid-1960s for robbery, assault, and drugs, and the lowest rates ever reliably recorded for homicide, rape, property offenses, and misdemeanors.