A new generation of brutal and remorseless teens was about to savage the nation, authorities on juvenile crime warned a decade ago, reports Knight Ridder Newspapers. Millions of Americans believed them. Criminologist John DiIulio called the fearsome horde “super-predators.” He estimated that they’d number 200,000 by now. Even Attorney General Janet Reno foresaw violent crime doubling among kids. It didn’t happen. Instead, the U.S. is experiencing the sharpest decline in teen crime in modern history. Schools today are as safe as they were in the 1960s, say Justice Department data. Juvenile homicide arrests are down from 3,800 annually to fewer than 1,000, and only a handful of those homicides occur in schools. Arrest rates for robbery, rape and aggravated assault are off a third since 1980 for kids aged 10-18, says the Justice Department’s 2006 National Report on Juvenile Offenders and Victims, due out this month.
Criminologists say the real question is what went right in the long period of relative peace that dawned in the mid-`90s. Teen-crime declines leveled off in 2002 and 2003, the latest years for which solid numbers are available. The rise and fall of crack cocaine was the biggest factor in the fluctuating rates, many experts agree. Others include an inner-city influx of relatively peaceable Latino families, a thriving economy, improved strategies for dealing with real and potential delinquents, more adult imprisonment, smarter policing, and better school-parent partnerships. Most likely, these and other factors all worked together in complex ways, said Melissa Sickmund of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. No social change as big and broad as teen crime’s fall has only one cause, she added. “This isn’t medicine.” The Latino population in central cities swelled as teen crime declined, says Jeff Roth, a University of Pennsylvania criminologist. Their influx, Roth said, brought more intact families, stronger values, higher religious participation – and lower crime rates. At the same time, many black families they replaced moved to suburbs where poverty was less concentrated. “Kids once confined to the inner city started seeing lifestyles other than the street,” Roth said.