Storm Warning: Ira Glasser on Youth Violence

Storm Warning

by Ira Glasser, ACLU Executive Director

New York, June 23 -- Taking their cue from the blockbuster movie "Twister," politicians are warning us about an impending storm -- a storm of "youth violence."

Over the next 15 years, according to a recent fact sheet produced by the House Subcommittee on Crime, "the number of teenagers will soar to the highest level in American history." Brace yourself, we are warned, for the "coming storm of violent juvenile crime."

The image of an army of sociopathic teen "super-predators" ready to rise up against the citizenry is the product of some fancy special effects, even fancier than those found in "Twister." But a storm of youth violence isn't brewing on the horizon any more than the actors up on the movie screen were fleeing a real tornado.

Contrary to the Subcommittee's "facts," scientific population projections show that while the number of young people between 15 and 24 -- the crime-prone years -- will increase in the next decade, this increase will not exceed that for 1980. In other words, there will be a bulge, not a "storm" or even a high wind, and it won't be unprecedented.

But that hasn't stopped Congress from considering the "Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996," slated for hearings and action later this week. The Act would mandate automatic adult prosecution of children as young as 13, encourage states to hold parents criminally responsible for their children's acts, open up juvenile arrest records to the public, and, for the first time, allow for children to be housed with adult prisoners.

These measures sound tough indeed, at a time when competition for who can sound toughest on crime is practically an Olympic sport. But what does it mean to be "tough" on crime? If being tough means being effective, few politicians have been tough. If it means sounding tough but being ineffective, they've all been tough.

Take the "get tough" proposal to throw children as young as 13 in jail with adults. Recent studies, cited on "Nightline" and elsewhere, show that juvenile offenders who serve time in adult prisons have a higher recidivism rate than those who serve time in juvenile facilities geared towards prevention. But scapegoating children leads to public policies that have everything to do with placating an anxious public, and nothing to do with reality.

The sponsors of this act know what the real problem is. Only days before this legislation was announced with great fanfare, the results of the non-profit Luxembourg Income Study were released: the United States has the highest child poverty rate in the developed world -- 26 percent. This is the real problem that our elected leaders are shrinking from confronting.

Instead, they're turning children, or more accurately, poor children, into America's latest scapegoats. Children are politically defenseless: they can't vote, and they are now being blamed for everything from crime to the breakdown of the family. Ignoring social and economic causes, their circumstances are blamed on individual moral failure. Poor teenagers, we are told over and over again, are uneducated, lazy, irresponsible, crime-prone and violent. (Where have we heard that before?)

Add "illegitimate" to the list, too. According to the so-called family values crowd, "illegitimate" children are more numerous than ever. What's more, if they are born female, they grow up to be unwed teenage mothers who have more "illegitimate" children. And if they are born male, they grow up to be -- you guessed it -- super-predators.

It should surprise no one that the current demonization of children is based on exaggeration, not fact. The rate of babies born to unwed black teenagers is the same today as it was in 1970: 80 per 1,000 unmarried teenagers. And the crime rate is, and always has been, affected mainly by the proportion of the population that is young and male -- and bereft of hope or a stake in the future.

It should surprise no one, either, that it's all been said before. In 1872, during an earlier period of rapid economic and social change, one commentator described the same ineluctable process: "All the neglect and bad education and evil example of a poor class tend to form others, who, as they mature, swell the ranks of ruffians and criminals. So, at length, a great multitude of ignorant, untrained, passionate, irreligious boys and young men are formed..."

The government's reflexive response to such "evil," then as now, is to punish rather than address the underlying problems. Especially in this election year, politicians are falling all over themselves to come up with "tougher" (read: ineffective) measures -- like the "Violent Youth Predator Act" -- for dealing with today's "ignorant, untrained and passionate" kids.

In a recent speech on "basic values," Bob Dole referred to the "plague of illegitimacy" that he says is sweeping the country. Dole also supports uniforms and curfews, plus locking up juvenile offenders in adult prisons and punishing unwed teenage mothers by cutting off their welfare benefits. Bill Clinton, posturing as the stern-but-fair First Daddy, goes out of his way to endorse school uniforms and curfews. And it's still early in the campaign.

Scapegoats serve a purpose. They are potent symbols used to divert an anxious public's attention away from real problems. They are also an occasion to pass all kinds of repressive laws that threaten everybody's rights. Curfews, for instance, are applied to all teenagers, not just the handful that commit crimes. Politicians, anxious to be re-elected, create a diversion to appear tough, but let the real problems fester. They aren't interested in long-term solutions, just quick fixes.

When you strip away the "special effects" -- the inflamed rhetoric, the skewed statistics, and the ineffective "solutions" -- what you are left with is an empty sound stage. Not much of a show, is it?

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