Crime statistics compiled by the FBI in its yearly crime index show what many in the law enforcement field consider to be an encouraging trend. From 1990 to 1995, the crime rate declined steadily in every category: murders, rapes, assaults, robberies, burglaries, and thefts. Sociologists and criminologists debate the explanation for this downward turn in crime rates; improved economic conditions and tougher criminal justice measures are two of the theories offered. Other experts, however, dispute whether the decline is significant, pointing out that crime rates in many categories are still higher than in the mid- 1980s. These scholars also deny that the trend of decreasing crime rates will continue.
James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, is among those who believe that the recent drop in crime rates is merely the lull before an approaching crime storm. The reason for the current decrease in crime, he maintains, is the demographic dip in the number of teenage and young adult males (ages fourteen to twenty-five), the part of the population most likely to commit crimes. In addition, he points out that even as the overall rate has decreased, the crime rate among the present population of teenaged males has grown, and many of their crimes are more violent and vicious in nature than those committed by young males of preceding generations. As the numbers of teenaged males increase in the near future (a demographic certainty), he predicts, the crime rate will naturally return to previous levels and will possibly climb even higher.
Expanding upon Fox’s argument, Princeton University professor John J. Di- Iulio Jr. argues that it is more than simply the number of boys approaching their crime-prone teen years that portends an impending explosion in the crime rate. In his opinion, it is the moral poverty in which the next generation of adolescents is being raised that bodes ill for the nation’s crime rates. Moral poverty, according to DiIulio, is “the poverty of growing up surrounded by deviant, delinquent, and criminal adults in abusive, violence-ridden, fatherless, Godless, and jobless settings.”
According to DiIulio, research shows that a small proportion of juvenile criminals is responsible for nearly half of all offenses committed by all teenagers. What is well established yet little known, he asserts, is that each successive generation of this segment of young offenders is approximately three times more violent and dangerous than the previous one. In DiIulio’s view, this is because each generation grows up “in more extreme conditions of moral poverty than the one before it.” The criminal behavior of the current population of offenders brings about the social conditions to produce an even more deviant future breed of juvenile “superpredators,” he maintains. Today’s criminals are frightening, in DiIulio’s opinion, because they have never learned right from wrong, they have no concept of the relationship between present actions and future consequences, and they place no value on the lives of others. But tomorrow’s superpredators are destined to be worse, he contends, because they are being raised in the fatherless families and drug- and violence-ridden neighborhoods created by today’s criminals. And due to current population trends, he adds, there will be more of these juvenile criminals in the near future.
Many criminologists, however, disagree with the predictions of Fox and Di- Iulio. Among them, Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, remains unconvinced that a juvenile crime wave is imminent. Blumstein contends that crime rates do not follow demographic trends in the numbers of teenage males as closely as proponents of the crime wave theory believe. He argues that violent crime has increased among the current population of teenagers (even though that population is relatively small) due to the influence of the drug trade and a lack of economic opportunity. As the economy improves and drug battles diminish, Blumstein maintains, fewer young people will become involved in crime. Counter to the beliefs of Fox and others, he predicts that crime rates will continue their downward slide. Others dispute DiIulio’s theory of a coming generation of superpredators. University of California, Berkeley professor Jerome H. Skolnick, for one, asserts that DiIulio’s theory of moral poverty “ignores such factors as racism, joblessness, inequality, and poverty.” Although there undoubtedly will be more teenagers in the near future, he contends, whether they become incorrigibly violent depends on how society addresses these root causes of crime.
Skolnick argues that poverty and unemployment within urban neighborhoods historically have been “a recipe for the emergence of youth cultures leading to rising crime rates.” He cites research by sociologists Kenneth Land, David Cantor, and Stephen Russell that shows a long-term correlation between unemployment rates and property crime rates, particularly within inner cities. In Skolnick’s opinion, this research suggests that long-term economic deprivation is a motivation to commit crime. Isolated by declining economic conditions and racial divisions, he contends, urban neighborhoods over the years have devel- oped patterns of lawlessness and family instability. As further proof, Skolnick points out that the declining crime rates of the 1990s have been accompanied by declining unemployment rates. It is by no means certain, he concludes, that America is on the brink of a wave of juvenile crime and violence.
Debates about future crime trends are inextricably interwoven with arguments about juvenile crime, since many believe that today’s juvenile delinquents are destined to become tomorrow’s adult felons. Crime: Current Controversies presents debates about crime rates, juvenile crime, and other topics in these chapters: What Causes Crime? Is Crime Increasing? Can Stronger Criminal Justice Measures Prevent Crime? How Can Juvenile Crime Be Prevented? The issues surrounding crime are controversial and, as the viewpoints that follow demonstrate, reasonable people can draw differing conclusions from the available evidence.