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On his July 16 visit to a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma, President Obama endorsed major criminal justice reforms liberals have long championed, including modifying mandatory minimum sentences, reforming harsh anti-drug laws, and investing in diversion and rehabilitation instead of lengthy incarceration for nonviolent offenses.

Unfortunately, the president cheapened this historic moment by blaming teenagers doing stupid things” as the cause of drug arrests and drug crimes that lead to imprisonment. Drugs and lawbreaking are something he, like just about everyone, used to do in his teenaged years, the president declared; older folks have grown out of these youthful mistakes.” (Nostalgia is selective; the president’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father, reveals his drug use and similar behaviors he now evidently considers mistakes” continued well past teen years.)

This crude falsehood contributes to the very anti-youth climate that creates the punitiveness the president deplored. Imagine if he had defined crime as black people doing stupid things…” Insert any group in society other than teenagers into his sentence, and it becomes hate speech. Instead of traditional scapegoating, we need a modern strategy that treats crime as a behavior of individuals, not demographic groups, and a criminal justice system that responds to individual characteristics.

Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports (19752013)

But the problem goes beyond official stigmatizing of young people; the president indulged in a bizarre distortion of reality. Figures 1 through 4 show the real-life trends in drug abuse, crime, and imprisonment that have been glaringly obvious for decades. In fact, crimes of the type that generate imprisonment (drug offenses and Part I property and violent felonies) have plummeted among teenagers and skyrocketed among middle-agers over the past 20 years, with trends in imprisonment following accordingly.

Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports (19752013)

Figures 1 and 2 show that, since 1975, annual arrests of middle-agers for drug and Part I crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, vehicle theft, larceny, and arson) have risen by 580,000, while teenaged arrests for these offenses fell by 780,000. Figure 3 shows the result of these arrest trends: imprisonment of older people has risen sharply, to the point that three times more people over age 40 than under age 20 are now in prison. Didn’t the president see this reality in El Reno?

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2013 (and earlier years)

Crime and imprisonment among the middle-aged has risen over the last 30 to 40 years largely due to surging substance abuse in that age group (Figure 4). In 1975, approximately 2,000 Americans age 40 to 64 died from abusing illegal drugs. In 1995, that number had grown to 5,000; and in 2013, it was more than 24,000. The numbers of teenagers and young adults under age 25 dying from illegal drugs also rose, but more slowly and to much lower levels.

Source: Centers for Disease Control, WISQARS (1995, 2013); Vital Statistics of the United States (1975).

Here’s another way to look at the trends: In 1975, 17 times more youths were arrested for drugs than people over 40, and 8 times more teenagers than middle-agers were arrested for Part I felonies. In 2013, more middle-agers than youths were arrested for drugs, and nearly as many were arrested for Part I offenses. That’s the new structure of crime. 

True, most middle-agers with a history of substance abuse and criminal offenses probably started during teen or young adult years. But the reverse is also true: most teenagers with drug and crime problems are surrounded by adults, including their parents, with similar problems. Note that the increase in drug abuse by middle-agers in the 1980s and beyond preceded the increase in drug abuse by young people in the 2000s, indicating these problems filter down from older to younger ages. 

Instead of perpetuating a teenagers-are-stupid” mindset, we need a modern, integrated vision, a president who can see beyond the narrow aspect of street violence or cyber-bullying by young people to the broader issues of domestic violence, addiction, and crime young people experience from adults in their homes and communities. A vision that can respond to changing realities, such as the pressing need to acknowledge and investigate rising older-age crime. 

It’s incredible that a president of Obama’s intellectual capacity continues to blame crime, imprisonment, and other troubles on stupid… teenagers” in a justice system that locks up young people” for mistakes.” Equally incredible is the silence of progressive experts, who surely know better, in the face of such backwards misconceptions by our leadership.