In December 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice released statistics showing that the national crime rate had declined for the seventh year in a row. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the homicide rate fell 31 percent from its all-time high in 1991 and was at its lowest point since the 1970s. The violent crime rate also dropped dramatically—25 percent—falling to its lowest level since 1973, when the Justice Department began collecting crime victimization statistics. Property crimes dropped 17 percent from 1997 to 1998 alone, and by 55 percent since 1973.
However, some criminologists and social commentators contend that, despite the good news these figures seem to represent, there is still reason to be concerned about crime in the United States. These experts point out that while the overall crime rate is declining to levels not seen since the 1970s, the severity of crimes committed since then is much worse. Driveby shootings, carjackings, and domestic terrorism were practically unheard of then, writes syndicated columnist Carl Rowan. “[Now] we live in a society where no family is immune to sudden death.” Especially frightening to some are the juvenile offenders who show no fear of the law or mercy toward their victims. Princeton University professor John J. DiIulio Jr. calls these criminals “super-predators,” claiming that they brutalize, maim, and even kill their victims just for the thrill of it.
The juvenile crime future looks bleak to some criminologists in other ways as well. Population experts predict the number of adolescents will grow by 16 percent between 1995 and 2010. Statistics show that most crimes are committed by male adolescents who learn their behavior from older criminals. Combining these two trends—an increasing number of violence-prone male adolescents who will learn about crime from older superpredators— DiIulio asserts that young boys in the 1990s are “a ticking time bomb.” The falling crime rate in the 1990s is merely the “lull before the crime storm,” he contends; when these young boys enter their adolescent years and begin their criminal careers, the crime rate will shoot back up again.
Some crime experts contend that the drop in crime rates may be due in part to inaccurate record keeping by the police. Lawrence W. Sherman, chairman of the University of Maryland’s department of criminology and criminal justice, studied police reporting procedures across the country and discovered that no two police departments classified crimes exactly in the same way. For example, Sherman found that police departments may downgrade the classification of some violent crimes, such as aggravated assault, to a less violent crime, such as simple assault, which is not included in the FBI’s violent crime rate. In 1990 in Illinois, rapes were categorized as “miscellaneous incidents.” Sherman also claims that some police departments did not make written reports of all the crimes reported to them. On the other hand, he also discovered departments that overrated the seriousness of a crime. By not reporting some crimes and mislabeling others, Sherman contends that the police can “cook the books” to make themselves and their city look good.
Other criminologists claim that the nation’s falling crime rate is nothing but good news for Americans. The crime rate has declined sharply for seven years, a fact they attribute to the declining use of crack cocaine which has reduced both the number of addicts stealing to support their habit and the number of dealers killing to protect their turf; harsher prison sentences that have kept criminals off the streets; and a booming economy that has provided a paying alternative to a life of crime. As for DiIulio’s warnings of a growing “super-predator” population, some criminologists contend that those fears are unfounded. According to Franklin E. Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, the link between an increasing juvenile population and a soaring crime rate has not been as strong in the 1990s as in past years. He points out that the juvenile crime rate has been falling since 1992 while the number of adolescents has been growing. He further notes that while a 16 percent increase in the number of adolescents between 1995 and 2010 is not insignificant, by comparison, the adolescent population that is probably responsible for much of the soaring crime rates in the 1980s expanded by 50 percent between 1960 and 1975.
Furthermore, crime experts contend that fears of a crime epidemic are fueled by the media, which exaggerate and emphasize crime in their news reports. Critics of the press claim that the media gave an inordinate amount of television time and news- print to stories of children who killed their classmates and teachers between October 1997 and May 1998. During that time, fourteen students were killed in six separate incidents. Syndicated columnist James K. Glassman writes that these murders must be put into perspective:
The United States has 38 million children between the ages of 10 and 17 and 20,000 secondary schools. In 1994, there were no school shootings in which more than one person was killed; [in 1997], there were four; [in 1998], two. In 1995, (the latest statistics), 319 kids aged 10 to 14 were murdered; the homicide rate for seniors aged 70 to 74 is 50 percent higher.
While the murder of these schoolchildren is a tragedy, Glassman concludes, it is not the epidemic the media make it out to be. Moreover, the media, by exploiting these stories, “may be helping to light the fuse” for other unstable teens who are “bombs waiting for detonation.”
The media, juvenile crime, the growth and decline of the adolescent population, and police procedures are just a few of the factors that may have an effect on future crime trends. Crime and Criminals: Opposing Viewpoints examines differing opinions on the causes of crime and society’s response in the following chapters: What Causes Crime? Does Controlling Guns Control Crime? How Should Society Treat Juvenile Offenders? How Can Crime Be Prevented? The authors in this anthology discuss differing views on the effects and social implications of crime in the United States.