Juvenile Crime Takes Off

In the late 1980s roughly one-third of serious and violent crimes in the U.S. were committed by juveniles under the age of 18.   In the eight years between 1986 and 1994 the number of violent crimes committed by juveniles went from 600,000 to 1.05 million.  A major contributor to the high juvenile crime rate over this period was the emergence of Columbian cocaine smuggled by South American gangs into U.S. and marketed by heavily armed street gangs.  Juveniles made up a significant cohort of the members of these gangs, who were constantly at war with rival gangs over marketing territory.  In large urban centers juvenile gang members played a major role in moving crack-cocaine and punishing rivals.  At that time state laws written in the 1950s to deal with teen-aged joyriders and petty thieves with short stays in Juvenile Hall and rehabilitation programs, were inadequate to deal with hardened 17-year-old drug dealers carrying automatic weapons.  Drive-by shootings, violent carjackings, and murders over a victim’s wristwatch or tennis shoes became regular occurrences in big cities and juveniles were often the perpetrators.

The big change came in 1994, when California adopted the country’s first three strikes law, which included both adults and juveniles convicted of serous or violent crimes and drug trafficking.  That law and the earlier victims bill of rights, added enhancements for the use of firearms and gang membership, and also applied them to juveniles.  Other states adopted similar laws at around the same time and as the chart highlighted above shows, by 2002, juvenile crime had plummeted to less than a quarter of what it was in 1994.

Over the past twenty years, most states and the federal government have adopted sentencing reforms which eliminated laws cracking down on violent juveniles, returning to the old model focused upon rehabilitation.  California, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and several other states decriminalized most drug crimes, including dealing.  In many states, juveniles arrested for carrying a firearm, are released the same day.  Similar reforms have been enacted for property crimes and assault.  And, once again, juveniles arrested for these crimes receive little or no consequences.  In California, urban police departments no longer even arrest most thieves and those arrested for assault are typically released without bail.  Because the overwhelming majority of crimes are theft or drug related, the result of eliminating consequences is a drop in reporting and arrests.  Reform advocates point to this drop in reported crimes as proof their reforms are working.  One contrary indicator is the increase in motor vehicle thefts, which are almost always reported, even if the thief goes unpunished.

But the strongest evidence is the increase in reported violent crimes by juveniles.  It is absurd to suggest that offenders willing to kill someone for their smart phone or a car, are avoiding theft and drug crimes.  A recent story in the Wall Street Journal by Dan Frosch and Zusha Elinson focuses on this:

“In the U.S., homicides committed by juveniles acting alone rose 30% in 2020 from a year earlier, while those committed by multiple juveniles increased 66%. The number of killings committed by children under 14 was the highest in two decades, according to the most recent federal data.

One consequence is a mounting toll of young victims. The number of juveniles killing other juveniles was the highest it has been in more than two decades, the 2020 federal data show.

Last year, a total of 117 juveniles were arrested for shootings in Philadelphia, up from 43 in 2019, according to police.

They include a 14-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy both charged with murder after they were allegedly involved in a September gun battle outside a West Philadelphia recreation center in the middle of the day. Tiffany Fletcher, a 41-year-old employee of the center and a mother of three, was outside when she was fatally struck by a stray bullet.”

While progressives point to the pandemic, school closings and social media as the causes for the surge in juvenile violence, the elimination of consequences must be considered a major contributor.  The fact that juvenile arrests for violent offenses have continued to rise in 2022, even after schools reopened, suggests that this is true.

“Some prosecutors and law enforcement leaders argue that the shift away from a more punitive approach for juveniles toward intervention programs and rehabilitation has gone too far and corrections are needed.

Ms. Clark, the Bronx District Attorney and a Democrat, supported a 2017 New York law that ended the automatic prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, raising the age to 18. Most states had already passed similar “Raise the Age” laws.

Now, Ms. Clark said, she wants to be able to try more gun possession cases in criminal court, which would allow her office more authority over what sentences to seek. She said under the Raise the Age law, too many juveniles arrested on gun possession charges are being released quickly because such cases are typically sent to family court—and some of those minors are going on to commit more serious crimes or are being murdered themselves.

Her office cited the case of a 17-year-old who was arrested three separate times on gun possession charges and sent to family court each time, before being arrested for murder, all within 12 months.

“I don’t want to lock them up and throw away the key because they’re young. But at the same time, they have to know the consequences for their actions,” said Ms. Clark.

Last March, New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul sent lawmakers a list of priorities to help reduce crime, including changing the Raise the Age law to allow juveniles arrested on gun possession charges to be tried in criminal court. The proposal was never taken up by the Democratic-controlled legislature.”

Progressive politicians and the national media are telling us that there’s nothing to worry about because the crime rate today is far lower than it was thirty years ago.  But the epidemic of juvenile crime in the 1990s began with soft-on-crime policies adopted decades earlier.   Similar policies adopted over the past several years are enabling the trend of lawlessness and violence we are seeing today.  Juveniles, as young as 14 are driving a significant portion of this trend.

Consequences and consistency matter.  Anyone from any political perspective denying this reality is encouraging more crime.