In the early 1990s, rising national crime rates provoked a change in the general public’s opinion of the people committing the crimes. Juvenile offenders, in particular, were represented as “vicious superpredators,” fueling the perception of juveniles as increasingly unpredictable, and of the juvenile penal system as being inadequate.
This idea led to a huge shift in the approach to crime prevention and punishment both on the state and the federal level. Reaction from lawmakers was largely swift and severe. Many states passed laws that shifted the focus of juvenile sentences to more punitive punishments rather than rehabilitative ones. Such laws often included measures that lowered the age that juveniles could be prosecuted as adults, as well as broadening the offenses that were applicable for transfer to the adult system.
Juvenile Crime Rates Rise, Then Fall
In 1996, juvenile crime rates hit the highest rate ever recorded, at an overall total of 8,476 arrests per 100,000 people aged ten to seventeen. The juvenile crime rate has been in decline ever since that 1996 high, which is carefully tracked and updated yearly by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, using published FBI data. The most recent available data demonstrates the change: in 2019, just 2,083 arrests were reported for every 100,000 people aged ten to seventeen. That is a seventy-five percent decline from 1996. When breaking down this number into individual crime types, the numbers look even more promising. Violent crimes have seen the most significant drop since the mid-1990s; this includes murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Murders committed by juveniles peaked in 1993, at 12.8 arrests per 100,000 youth and, more recently, was 2.6 arrests in 2019. Juvenile arrests for violent crimes reached their lowest level since at least 1980 and 69 percent less than the 1994 peak. Aggravated assault was, and still is, the most commonly committed violent crime by juveniles, peaking in 1994 at 282 arrests per 100,000 youths. That number has made a very significant drop to 80,8 arrests, a 69 percent decrease between 1994 and 2019 to the lowest level in the last 40 years. Rape arrests are more difficult to get an estimate on, after a 2012 change by the FBI to broaden the definition of the term, which previously had been limited to “forcible” rape only. This change has led to a discrepancy in the way law enforcement agencies across the country report rapes, as they are allowed to either report based on the new definition of the term or the legacy definition. The last report using the legacy definition in 2012 did, however, show a significant drop in rape cases to 7.6 arrests per 100,000 youths, after peaking in 1991 at 22.4 arrests.
Nonviolent crime rates show a similar pattern. Property crime offenses, which include burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson, all showed declining arrests rates. Property crime rates were high from 1988 to 1991, hovering just over 2,500 arrests per 100,000 youths. Aside from an uptick in 1994 at a rate of 2,525.2 per 100,000 juveniles, that number has steadily been going down since, and in 2019 the arrest rate was down to 360.1 per 100,000 teens. Even drug abuse crimes have decreased, despite the current nationwide opioid crisis; after peaking in 1997 at 684.5 arrests per 100,000 youths, the rate slowly decreased to 244.2 arrests in 2019.
The Most Commonly Committed Juvenile Crimes
The most commonly committed crimes by juveniles are typically nonviolent misdemeanor offenses. The most common is theft-larceny, which showed an arrest rate of 401.3 per 100,000 youths in 2016. The second most common is simple assault, with an arrest rate of 382.3 per 100,000 youths. Third is drug abuse violations, at 295.6 arrests per 100,000 youths. The fourth most common is disorderly conduct, with an arrest rate of 195.5 per 100,000 youths. Fifth is alcohol offenses, including driving under the influence, liquor law violations, and drunkenness, which combine to a rate of 143.9 arrests per 100,000 youths.
A Continued Effort to Keep Crime Rates Low
In contrast to the punitive efforts of the 1990s, since the early 2000s efforts by nonprofits, lawmakers, and private citizens alike have pushed for more rehabilitative efforts to be utilized in juvenile justice cases. This makes the exact reason for the declining rates difficult to pinpoint with certainty. What is certain, at least, is that the crime rate for juveniles has fallen significantly since the mid-1990s, and most still continue to fall from year to year. Continued efforts on the part of everyone involved in the juvenile justice system will help sustain this trend, and will hopefully forever dispel the “juvenile superpredator” stigma of the 1990s.