Prevention Efforts Needed to Break the Cycle of Crime

By Neal Peirce Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

Prevention Efforts Needed to Break the Cycle of Crime


Neal Peirce Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The downtick in violent juvenile crime in 1995, just reported by Attorney General Janet Reno doesn't mean we're on our way out of the woods.

There was a 2.9 percent drop overall, with murders declining 15.2 percent. But the new figures follow some terrifying years - six in which juvenile arrests for murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault rose 50 percent; seven in which juvenile arrests for weapons law violations doubled; 10 years that saw the number of homicides by juveniles triple.

And the decline comes just as experts have been warning of a firestorm of crime as the ranks of 14- to 17-year-olds - youths in their most violence-prone years - will increase by 23 percent in the next decade.

Still, the 1995 figures are heartening because they shatter the idea of an inevitable surge of dangerous youth crime we're powerless to control. What did cause the 1995 decline? How do we accelerate it?

Social conservatives will credit last year's drop to the popular new wave of laws allowing juveniles to be tried as adults, punishing truancy and imposing curfews, putting more youthful offenders behind bars.

The truancy and curfew laws are too new, though, to have had an impact. And the yearly, fresh supply of potential young criminals makes it unlikel y incarceration alone could ever reverse recent years' stunning growth in juvenile crime.

What then of the "softer," crime-prevention side - after-school recreation opportunities for children, family counseling, creating "safe" places, drug rehabilitation?

The vast majority of people who work with troubled youth want to stress the prevention measures. The Raleigh News & Observer summed up the feeling of several court officials and social service leaders - that "cracking down on teen violence without also attacking its causes is like bailing out a leaky boat with a pickax."

But for most of the '90s, legislatures have been de-emphasizing and de-funding preventive measures in their rush to show how tough they are on teen-age thugs.

The likeliest cause of a youth crime dip is community policing - the '90s police departments' efforts to form stronger links with neighborhood residents.

Community policing is strongest in some of the big cities afflicted by the worst youth crime, especially homicides.

"Every place that I have examined where community policing has occurred, there has been a dramatic drop in crime, particularly in violent crime," says Marvin Wolfgang, a University of Pennsylvania penologist.

Combining community policing with efforts to get guns out of the hands of youth produces real results, as New York and Boston have learned. …

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