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
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
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. …