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New Report on Crime Decline Repeats Old Myths

What makes even insightful, progressive researchers go haywire when discussing young people and issues like crime? The Brennan Center’s latest report assessing possible causes of America’s two-decade drop in crime assesses the relative contributions of numerous factors, from incarceration and police strategies to unemployment and leaded gasoline, and finds that “between 2 to 3 percent of the crime drop in the 1990s can be attributed to a decrease in people aged 15 to 29; this effect could statistically range from 0 to 5 percent. This correlation between age and crime is consistent with past research.”

What actually happened? The evidence shows the strong decline in crime from 1990 to the present was not related, even in part, to fewer 18-29 year-olds but to the massive decline in crime by people under age 40 (arrests down 4 million) that more than offset the increase in crime among those aged 40 and older (arrests up 1 million) (see table).

Year

Age <20

20-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60+

Total

1990

3,676,790

5,537,055

3,421,263

1,245,694

409,873

209,024

14,499,699

2000

3,859,885

4,419,248

3,202,769

1,931,688

536,949

175,028

14,125,566

2010

2,904,326

4,588,081

2,557,904

1,939,976

932,031

237,008

13,159,326

2013

2,034,175

4,184,122

2,530,333

1,676,677

976,187

266,392

11,667,886

Change

- 1,642,615

- 1,352,934

- 890,930

+ 430,983

+ 566,314

+ 57,369

- 2,818,813

In 1990, those under age 30 accounted for 64 percent of arrests; in 2013, a little over half. California’s trends in arrest rates by age over the last 35 years are even more stunning (see figure).

Source: Criminal Justice Statistics Center (2014).

The plunge in younger-age crime and rise in older-age crime are striking, long-term trends shown in crime and victimization data from the FBI. They hold profound implications for the entire criminal justice system. Yet across the political spectrum, no one seems to cite these trends, let alone incorporate them into analyses.

In short, there has been a breakdown in crime analysis when it comes to age and generational trends, with significant consequences – including continued baseless panics over youth crime and failure to anticipate and plan for the surge in drug abuse and crime by older ages. The Brennan Center report is only the latest in this unfortunate record that confounds being “consistent with past research” with perpetuating outdated biosocial prejudices about age and crime:

"Young adults tend to have fewer responsibilities, such as being the primary wage-earner or a parent, which can inhibit crime. Younger people may also spend more free time outside the home, thereby exposing themselves to more opportunities to commit crime. Young people may also simply be more predisposed to take risks, which include committing crimes, and have less overall impulse control and less mature decision-making skills ."

If these speculations are valid, why has the crime rate for Californians ages 12-17 plunged below that of supposedly mature 30-39 and 40-49 year-olds? A politically pleasing, false demographic answer as to what contributes to declining crime (“an aging population”) remains more satisfying than a complex answer that raises difficult challenges (“the crime plunge among racially diverse younger ages more than offset the crime increase among white-dominated older age groups”).

The stubborn persistence of demographic myths rests in large part on the traditional dogma that older ages do not commit crime, one embedded in visceral race- and age-based prejudices that adamantly resist real-world developments. The ongoing crime reduction can be supported by policies that work to abolish widespread youth poverty (connected to the large majority of remaining youth crime) and an older-age drug abuse epidemic. These goals are sabotaged by continued recitation of age- and race-based myths of Irresponsible, impulsive, immature, risk=taking young adults with too much free time.

Table source: FBI, Crime in the United States, Table 38 (1990-2014). Figures adjusted for annual populations.

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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