On May 30, Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, introduced the Violent Predator Act of 1996. The bill calls for automatic adult prosecution of juveniles age 14 or older who commit federal violent crimes or major drug crimes. It permits adult prosecution of juveniles age 13 or older who commit any federal felony. It imposes mandatory minimum sentences for armed violent youth offenders. It enhances cooperation among federal, state, and local law enforcement officials in apprehending violent youth criminals who use guns. It seeks to improve juvenile-crime record-keeping and public access. It establishes a new Office of Juvenile Crime Control. And it relaxes federal restrictions on housing juvenile offenders in adult jails or prisons.
House Democrats howled at the McCollum bill and forced a change in its title -- the word "predator" is now gone. But head-in-the-sand word games won't obviate the harsh social fact that this nation is in the grip of a large and growing juvenile-crime problem. Granted, the vast majority of the nearly 2 million juveniles who get arrested each year are not remorseless, violent predators. But frightening numbers of them most definitely are. Indeed, juveniles now account for almost 20 percent of violent-crime arrests and over a third of all property-crime arrests. Yet many House Democrats continue to talk as if we are dealing with a highly corrigible class of juvenile criminals more like the duck-tailed West Side Story boys of the 1950s than the drive-by shooters of the 1980s and today. An estimated 200,000 juveniles are members of street gangs. The primary victims of these youth predators are other juveniles, including many innocent bystanders. Democratic party euphemisms for youth crime only guarantee more youth victim eulogies.
In early August, the Clinton administration sang the House Democrats' tune on juvenile crime with a declaration that juvenile crime was declining. Just in case anyone missed the news, the Democratic platform made it official: " Four years ago, crime in America seemed intractable. . . . Bill Clinton promised to turn things around, and that is exactly what he did . . . [steering] young people away from crime and drugs . . . putting 100,000 police officers on the streets."
But in many big cities, including Washington and Philadelphia, youth violence, drug abuse, and murders are up, not down. Over a third of the total decrease in crimes reported to the police since 1993 occurred in New York City -- where the number of cops had not increased. The ongoing crime- fighting success in New York has had absolutely nothing to do with Clinton's spurious "100,000 cops" or touchy-feely federal anti-crime "partnership" programs, and much to do with beat cops and special squads who stop, frisk, and arrest aggressive panhandlers, prostitutes, youth criminals, street gangsters, and drug pushers.
Still, the McCollum bill isn't perfect; its proposed relaxation of restrictions on the housing of juvenile offenders is a bad idea. Before the 1970s, we institutionalized juvenile offenders in reform schools that in too many cases were dirty, disorderly, and deadly hellholes. Over the last two decades, we solved that problem by deinstitutionalizing juvenile offenders, but without first bothering to create a meaningful, nononsense network of community-based residential facilities and programs. The result is a system that today locks up only about 56 out of every 1,000 juveniles who get arrested, permits tens of thousands of known youth criminals to run wild, and forces the nation's overburdened juvenile probation offcers to manage ever larger numbers of violent youth.
Indeed, between 1989 and 1993 alone, the number of violent juvenile offenders placed on probation increased by 45 percent. But rather than succumb to the immediate pressure to incarcerate these kids in adult facilities, the wiser course would be to assist the states and cities in building, staffing, and funding a new generation of juveniles-only prisons and jails that meet both basic security requirements and the educational and other needs of a young, diverse, and growing criminal population.
With this one exception, the McCollum bill is both substantively and symbolically the right federal juvenile-crime measure at the right time. To date, its chief critics have advanced three overarching arguments against it. Each of their criticisms, however, is less an informed argument than an ideological or partisan myth.
Myth #1: There is no juvenile-crime epidemic. This myth is most fashionable among "mainstream" (read: radlcal-llberal) criminologists and law professors. In many cases, these are the very same academics and analysts who have specialized, often with federal research dollars, in arguing that most prisoners are not violent or repeat criminals and should be released; that sex offenders are actually easy to rehabilitate; that drugs ought to be decriminalized or legalized; that the social costs of violent crime are relatively small; and that any anti-crime proposal that enjoys majority support among average Americans is thereby bound to be irrational, racist, or reactionary. Not surprisingly, such experts have dismissed the McCollum bill as "alarmist" or worse.
But the facts about juvenile crime should alarm us. Take, for example, McCollum's home state of Florida. Florida's juvenile population as a percentage of total state population actually dropped by about 25 percent between 1970 and 1995. Just the same, fewer teenagers committed a larger share of all violent crimes. By the year 2010, Florida will have about 36 percent more juveniles, and 44 percent more in the crime-prone teenage years, than it did in 1990. Like law enforcement officials in many other states, officials in Florida now predict that juvenile arrests will double over the next two decades. And remember: Not all juveniles who commit serious crimes get arrested. Indeed, the best scientific studies show that as many as 60 percent of the worst youth criminals are never arrested.
Nationally, the number of 10 to 18-year-old males in the population in the year 2010 will probably exceed 16 million, over 20 percent more than we had in 1990, with a larger fraction than ever the product of singleparent homes. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that only 39 percent of all children born in recent years will live with both parents through their eighteenth birthdays. Most boys who grow up in single-parent families will grow up fatherless. Only a Ph.D. in criminology could doubt that this spells trouble, or call the McCollum response to our present and impending national youth-crime dilemma " alarmist."
Of course, the credit-claiming Clintonites, the no"predators" House Democrats, and their no-worries academics are alarmed about something. They worry about the McCollum bill's threat to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and its various programs. The OJJDP is the last bureaucratic bastion of reliably left-wing federal crime policy. It is responsible, for example, for enforcing federal mandates about " disproportionate minority confinement" -- which is to say, it encourages the release of criminals solely on the grounds that they are black. In the past few years, the office has made itself over; no longer do OJJDP careerists routinely denounce America and its justice system as racist and overly punitive, or fund stacked-deck "studies" that purport to prove the point. In fact, its March 1996 report on "combating violence and delinquency" contains any number of solid statistics and good ideas about juvenile crime.
The McCollum bill would prevent any backsliding by abolishing the office, putting a new juvenile-crime control agency in its place, and conducting genuine research. House Democrats have no grounds for complaint; the new agency would have three times the funding of OJJDP over the next five years.
Myth #2: The epidemic is real, but it's all gun-related. Nationally, the number of gun homicides by juveniles has nearly tripled since 1983. The fastest-growing murder circumstance is juvenile gang killings, which nearly quadrupled from 1980 to 1992. To gun-control enthusiasts, such facts suggest that rampaging youth crime is not a function of the tangle of social pathology and substance abuse that defines the early lives of most street criminals, but a simple byproduct of a steady increase in the availability of high-powered guns. A few have even gone so far as to conclude that if guncontrol strategies were strengthened, serious youth crime would disappear.
The it's-all-guns school makes such noise by firing intellectual blanks. For starters, neither increased gun availability nor, for that matter, the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s (which many of these same experts pooh- poohed at the time) can begin to explain why the juvenile violent-crime arrest rate more than tripled between 1965 and 1990.
Moreover, earlier in this century America had lots of surly, hot-tempered boys grow up in cities where guns were easy to come by. In his latest book, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan recalls that in the 1940s even the "street warrior caste" of New York's fabled Hell's Kitchen was tame by contemporary standards. "In 1943," he recalls, "there were exactly 44 homicides by gunshot in the city of New York. Forty-four." The city's population then was about the same size as it is now. Its emergency medical services did not approach the life-saving sophistication of today's rapidresponse trauma teams and paramedics.
Yet today we are giddy because the number of murders in New York is "down to" 1,170 for 1995. The blame-guns school would have us conclude that the only explanation for the nearly 27-fold increase in fatal violence from 1943 to 1995 is a 27-fold increase in gun availability. Pay no mind, they insist, to the plethora of studies showing that family structure virtually eliminates the relationships between race and crime, and low income and crime. They want us to ignore the ethnographic studies that find most boys who get into serious trouble with the law come from single-parent homes in which abuse, neglect, substance abuse, and violence are the deviant daily norm.
The gun-reductionists overlook the paltry record of gun-control laws in reducing rates of serious crime by adults and juveniles. (I write this as a supporter of the Brady bill, by the way.) They simultaneously ignore the mounting evidence that the proliferation of concealed-handgun laws -- and hence of gun-carrying citizens -- is responsible for a big share of recent drops in violent crimes, including murder and rape.
Myth #3: The epidemic is real, but incarcerating juveniles who commit adult crimes will do no good. The evidence that imprisoning adult violent and repeat criminals reduces crime is now simply overwhelming. Urban criminals who end up in prison typically start out young and commit dozens of crimes before they get their first ticket to the big house. Restraining these chronic youth offenders early in their careers rather than waiting until they have found their umpteenth victims is not only a boost to public safety, but a blow for morality and justice.
Like kindred laws now on the books in many states, the McCollum bill does not represent an effort to get tough with juvenile criminals so much as it represents an effort to get serious about juvenile crime. It usefully addresses one half of the juvenilecrime equation -- the part that deals with restraining known, adjudicated, violent, and repeat youth criminals. It does not address, and does not pretend to address, the other half of that equation: involving responsible, caring adults in the lives of severely at-risk children before they fall prey to the temptations of a deviant, delinquent, or criminal way of life.
If House Democrats and the Clinton administration are as concerned about preventing juvenile crime as they so often and so ostentatiously claim to be, then let them fashion a federal crime-prevention bill that is as pragmatic in dealing with the challenges of keeping at-risk kids on the straight-and- narrow as the McCollum bill is in dealing with the challenges of restraining kids who have already crossed the line. Let the Democrats cease and desist from protecting the federal juvenile-crime status quo and show a real willingness to help states and cities experiment with new approaches to youth crime. Let them reach well beyond the usual secular liberal suspects to include small, uncredentialed group homes and inner-city churches that unapologetically use the Bible and one-on-one evangelical ministries to save troubled young lives and souls. At a minimum, let them not stand in the way of the McCollum initiative, the first basically sound federal juvenile-crime control bill in decades.
As a first step, the Democrats and their expert minions should stop seeing mere delicate delinquents where ever more veteran police officers, district attorneys, inner-city ministers, and crime victims see violent youth predators -- and have the real live scars, scares, and nightmares to prove it.