The Associated Press Fabricates a Juvenile Sex-Crime Panic

The Associated Press fabricates a juvenile sex-crime panic

A recent example of the American news media’s relentless effort to slander young people today as more dangerous at younger ages, the Associated Press issued a story based on its own “review of national statistics” that was widely carried in the broadcast and print media. The story began as follows:

Sex Offenders Getting Younger

Experts blame rising numbers on society, growing awareness and general hysteria

Associated Press, June 12, 2007

Offenses By The Numbers

  • Increase: The number of children younger than 18 accused of violent and nonviolent sex offenses rose from 24,100 in 1985 to 33,800 in 2004. Violent offenses include attempted rape and sexual assault, and nonviolent offenses including fondling, statutory rape and prostitution.
  • Adults: Rape and sexual assaults by adults decreased more than 56 percent from 1993 to 2004.

STOCKTON, CALIF. — Courts have seen the number of sex-offense cases involving juvenile offenders rise dramatically in recent years, an Associated Press review of national statistics found, and treatment professionals say the offenders are getting younger and the crimes more violent.

Some psychologists blame the increase in numbers — 40 percent over two decades — on a society saturated with sex and violence and the fact that many of the accused were themselves victims of adult sexual predators. Others say there aren’t more children committing such crimes, simply more awareness, better reporting and a general hysteria about sex offenders.

The AP invited “experts” to comment on why the numbers of juvenile sex offenders had indeed risen. But, has there been an increase? Was AP’s “review of national statistics” honest, or was it biased to elicit the claim its headline announced:  that “sex offenders (are) getting younger”?

Are juvenile sex offenses becoming more common? NO. The best National Crime Victimization Surveymeasures of victimization and FBI arrest reports show they’ve plummeted (Table 1). But AP ignored these measures and, instead, hyped a single, dubious trend in referrals of youths to juvenile courts for “other sex offenses.”

Table 1. Three measures of juvenile sex offense trends, 1993-2004

(numbers for 1985 shown where available; “change” refers to 1993-2004)

Rate/100,000 pop. Number Population
Year <18 18+ <18 18+ 10-17 18-69
Rape/sexual assault victimizations, single offender
1985 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 28,117,200 156,227,100
1993 175.7 221.8 51,340 375,900 29,219,700 169,465,600
2004 51.2 86.2 17,190 167,190 33,583,500 194,025,300
Change -71% -61% -67% -56%
FBI arrests for rape/sex offenses
1985 82.0 74.4 23,050 116,160
1993 89.4 70.0 26,120 118,640
2004 61.1 48.6 20,540 94,390
Change -32% -31% -21% -19%
Court referral for sex offenses (adult figures not available)
1985 76.1 n.a. 21,400 n.a.
1993 95.5 27,900
2004 100.6 33,800
Change +5% +21%
Imprisonment/placement for sex offenses
1985 12.8 25.4 3,600 39,700
1993 12.7 48.0 3,700 81,400
2004 14.0 76.7 4,700 148,800
Change +10% +60% +27% +83%
Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics. National Crime Victimization Survey, 1993, 2004, Table 39 (victimizations); FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 1993, 2004, Table 38 (arrests);Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Juvenile Court Statistics, 1993, 2004; Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners 2004, 1993.

Note that in 1993, juveniles accounted for 12.0% of sex offenses as reported by victims and 18.0% of sex offense arrests. In 2004, these numbers had fallen to 9.3% of victimizations and 17.5% of arrests. (Numbers for 1985 are available for arrests, showing a larger juvenile rise from 1985 to 1993, and for imprisonments, which show a larger increase for adults over the entire period.) When compared using consistent indexes, youths show larger numerical and rate declines in sex offenses larger than adults over the last decade. In fact, if victimization surveys, considered the most reliable measure of crime, are used, youths show declines in sexual offending that are both massive and larger than for adults.

Similarly, the rate of imprisonment or institutional placement for rape and other sex offenses (a much more rigorous measure because it involves conviction and felony sentencings only) rose much faster for adults than for juvenile court referrals. Again, for both youths and adults, expanded policing and tougher sentencing for sex offenses caused the rising numbers rather than any real increase in offending.

Finally, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Juvenile Victims and Offenders and discussion with the National Council for Juvenile Justice elicited several reasons for the growth in juvenile court cases for sex offenders in the face of sharply declining victimization and arrests over the last decade. First, in line with recent legal and policy mandates, the justice system has replaced the informal handling of many juvenile cases in the past with formal, court procedures. Second, there are more sources today, such as schools, who can refer juveniles to court than in the past, so that police arrest and prosecutor charging are no longer the only way a youth can be brought before a judge for criminal offenses. While, in 1993, the number of juveniles arrested for sex offenses roughly matched the number referred to court, by 2004, the number of referrals exceeded the number of arrests by 40%. Third, the increase was only for sex offenses other than rape, a category which is inconsistently defined and policed (see below).

Are juvenile sex offenders getting more violent? NO. The best evidence suggests otherwise. For both arrests and court referrals, the most serious and violent offense, rape, declined more rapidly than for lesser offenses.

Table 2. Juvenile sex offenses are becoming less violent
Arrests (FBI) Court referrals (NCJJ)        Population

age 10-17

Year Rape Other sex Rape Other sex
1985 5,660 17,385 3,600 20,500 28,117,200
1993 6,385 19,738 6,100 21,800 29,219,700
2004 4,199 17,955 4,200 29,600 33,648,000
Change, 2004 vs. 1985* -38% -14% -3% 21%
Change, 2004 vs. 1993* -43% -21% -40% 18%
*Change in rate per 100,000 population ages 10-17.

Thus, the “increase in juvenile sex offending” consists of more court referrals of youths for lesser sex offenses(sexual assault, statutory rape, prostitution, public indecency), cases that were once handled more informally and which do not result from criminal arrest today. Note that the number of rape arrests and court referrals was very similar in 2004, but the number of court referrals for other sex offenses exceeded arrests by 65%.

The reason for the discrepancies between both levels of and trends in sex offense arrest and court referral is that, while the legal definition of rape is more specific and constant over time, “other sex offenses” covers a wide range of behaviors ranging from a violent sexual assault to indecent exposure, all involving substantial police discretion.

The claim that juvenile sex offenses have become more violent is not substantiated. In fact, for both arrest and court cases, juvenile sex offenses appear much less violent than in the past.

Conclusion: The Associated Press, particularly its story’s headline, statistics, and lead sentence, manufactured the false impressions of increased, and increasingly violent, juvenile sex offenders.

  • The AP highlighted the most dubious measure—court referrals for sex offenses other than rape—and ignored more reliable arrest and victimization trends.
  • Similarly, AP’s handling of juvenile and adult sex offending uses inconsistent statistics and time periods in what appears to be a deliberate effort to lend the impression of rising youth and declining adult offenses. When consistent statistics are compared, exactly the opposite trends are indicated: juvenile comprise a lower proportion of sex offenders than in the past.
  • The AP story quoted treatment and interest-group spokespersons alleging increasingly violent juvenile sex offenders but apparently required no documentation from them. AP presents no evidence of fact-checking their statements. Nor did the story point out that the “experts” alleging more, and more violent, juvenile sex offenders were just advocates for interest groups.
  • The AP story did include quotes from crime authorities stating that the changes in policy, not juvenile behavior, caused the increase, an anti-alarmist skepticism which is rare in stories about youth. However, AP’s headline, “Sex Offenders Getting Younger,” numbers, and lead sentence negated the cautionary qualifications and lent the most alarming impression.

The Associated Press story is typical of formulaic news media reporting that—regardless of what the best information shows—must always claim that young people today are more and more dangerous at younger ages. AP’s poor editorial decision to run this story shows again that the media are not reliable sources for information about youth.