Recent news stories reporting on the dramatic decreases in adult criminality may leave the casual observer feeling that we as a nation have turned the corner on crime and are headed for a more crime-free future. Unfortunately, the prognosis is not quite so rosy.
The primary reason such optimism should be tempered is our criminal youth. Although the FBI may have found that 1996 registered the largest one-year decline in violent crime since the government began compiling such statistics 35 years ago, juvenile crime has skyrocketed both numerically and in terms of its severity, and many states have failed to adjust their juvenile laws accordingly.
In contrast to adult crime, juvenile crime is at a record high. The National Center for Juvenile Justice examined trends in juvenile crime from 1982-1992, and its 1995 report found that juvenile arrest rates for Violent Crime Index offenses such as murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape and robbery had increased 57 percent, the arrest rate for aggravated assault went up by 100 percent, and the arrest rate for weapons law violations more than doubled. While the adult arrest rate for murder during this period rose by 9 percent, the parallel juvenile arrest rate increased by a troubling 128 percent. Today's "child" offenders are therefore committing very adult offenses. In 1991, juveniles between the ages of 12 and 18 committed about 28 percent of all personal crimes, such as rape, personal robbery, aggravated and simple assault, and theft from a person. Of even greater concern, the National Center for Juvenile Justice estimates that the average arrest rate for Violent Crime Index offenses will increase 101 percent by the year 2010 and that the juvenile arrest rate for murder will increase by 45 percent. The result of this explosion in juvenile criminality is that, as today's young people approach early adulthood - the most criminally active period in their lives - the overt crime rate will increase accordingly. In short, today's optimism about declining crime rates may soon fade. Although one would expect legislators to be concerned with identifying and tracking hard-core juvenile offenders as they approach adulthood, the reality is that most states continue to aggressively "expunge" (that is, either seal or destroy) juvenile crime records when the young criminal reaches the arbitrary age of 17 or 18. Under many expungement statutes, even judges are prevented from finding out whether the young adult before them for sentencing is a true first- time offender or whether he instead has an extensive history of victimizing others while a juvenile. Expungement, with its origins in the 1960s and '70s, is based on a belief that juveniles will outgrow their criminal tendencies. To stigmatize a youth who has committed a youth indiscretion by labeling him a "juvenile delinquent," the argument goes, impedes rehabilitation and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, modern research has established that chronic and violent criminal tendencies rarely emerge de novo in adulthood, and that criminal careers are started early in life and remain relatively stable throughout life. A 1994 report on juveniles in New York state found a re-offense rate approaching 90 percent, and a study tracking 926 males released from Washington State's division of juvenile rehabilitation revealed a reconviction rate within two years of 68 percent (with 53 percent of the juveniles committing at least one violent offense during that period). Rehabilitation of juvenile offenders is not the norm. …