Not Youth Violence Again…

Not “youth violence” again…

April 6th, 2011

It’s becoming a standard political tactic: when a Democratic president seeking reelection loses the will to confront Republicans on basic issues, he switches to a “values” crusade attacking young people. Rahm Emanuel, top advisor to both presidents Clinton and Obama and 2006 congressional campaign strategist, openly recommended youth-bashing as a campaign strategy. Clinton complied; now Obama, despite claims to represent “change” and owing his election to young people, is cynically following suit.

The administration’s resulting new-but-already-hackneyed “youth violence summit” held at the White House on April 4-5, drawing top cabinet, drug-war, and law enforcement officials, was bizarre. As always, the tone was “concern,” but the message was hostile: America’s young people are perpetrating “unacceptable” and “rising” violence and must be controlled by their mature elders.

This message has nothing to do with reality. Can agency officials and criminal justice authorities really be this ignorant of the fact that violence rates by youth, particularly for homicide, not only aren’t “rising,” they now stand at historic lows? Or has exploiting fear of young people become so easy that they just don’t care about facts? The latest, 2009,FBI Uniform Crime Reports show violent crime rates among youths age 10-17 are at their lowest level since 1971; murder levels, while fluctuating annually due to small numbers, are lower today than the first nationwide reports in 1960. Even larger declines are evident in the 2009 National Crime Victimization Survey, which indicate violence by youthful offenders has dropped by 60-70% since the survey’s 1993 update.

Numerically, adults age 40-49 now have higher numbers of arrests for homicide and aggravated assault and equal numbers for rape than those under 18; youths show higher numbers only for robbery. This is truly astounding, given that poverty levels—highly predictive of violent crime arrest—are twice as high among teenagers as among adults in their 40s. So… why no Beltway summit on “middle aged violence”?

In Chicago, where Education Secretary Arne Duncan lamented that “we were losing one child every two weeks,” that actually represents the lowest toll in at least four decades. In 1970, vital statistics records show, Chicago lost one school-age youth to murder every 4 days; in 1980, one every 6 days; in 1990, one every 3 days; in 2000, one per week; today, one every two weeks.

True, violence, especially murder, at any level is “unacceptable.” But given that reality, why is the “violence” appellation applied only to youth and no other group in society? Adults in their 20s, 30s, and even 40-44 now display higher, even more “unacceptable” rates of violent crime than youths age 10-17 do. In 2009, FBI crime clearancereports show youths accounted for just 5% of murders and 11% of violent crime in the U.S. Five out of six of murder victims under age 18 were killed by adults, not other youths.

It is middle-aged, not teenaged, drug abuse, arrest, violence, and imprisonment that have formed the most baffling and alarming crime issues in recent decades. While violent crime rates among youth and young adults today stand about where they did 30 to 40 years ago, rates among adults have risen 45% among age 40-44, 54% among age 45-49, and 39% among age 50-54 (see raw FBI tables adjusted for population changes and proportion of country covered by annual crime reports at http://www.youthfacts.org/crimetables.html).

This trend should be deeply disturbing to authorities, both because middle-agers are an affluent demographic supposedly immune to crime, and because these are the ages parenting teens. Yet, officials and experts seem unable even to acknowledge these trends, let alone organize conferences, campaigns, and media splashes. This is absolutely flabbergasting, given the magnitude of crime shifts and trends and the tens of billions of dollars spent on managing the aging drug and crime wave.

This official default shows how damaging, as well as meaningless, the term “youth violence” is to reasoned discussion of crime. Violent crime by young people varies radically along socioeconomic lines and closely resembles violence levels of nearby adults. We’ve found enough wild exaggerations and misrepresentations of crime by youths among officials, including police, that are directly contradicted by their own statistics to suggest that young people are simply a punching bag ambitious politicians and interests can cynically misrepresent and exploit at will.