Hyping Juvenile Crime - a Media Staple

Recently, two killings by juveniles drew national media attention. A 15-year-old boy was arrested in rural Jackson Township, N.J., for allegedly sexually assaulting and killing an 11-year-old. And another 16-year-old boy in Mississippi was accused of stabbing his mother to death and then opening fire at his high school, killing an additional two students and wounding several others.

These completely unrelated killings occurred thousands of miles apart, connected only by the age of the suspects and the fact they happened within a week's time. Yet they were instantly woven into a theme of juvenile homicides out of control. Instantly, the Today Show, MS-NBC, and Fox News were covering the two killings as one story.

Working 17 years in the field of juvenile justice, I've seen my share of frenzied media coverage following horrific, idiosyncratic events. The calls usually come from desperate TV producers seeking similarly unique murders so they can pull file tape from one of their small-town affiliates to complete their theme, cooked up in the newsroom that morning.

This summer, I was interviewed by an ambitious Rolling Stone reporter who had assembled a handful of vignettes of abhorrent teenage crimes, some several years old, to prove his point that heinous juvenile offenses were proliferating. When it was pointed out to him that a few individual acts in a nation of 260 million people hardly represented a trend, he continued, undaunted, with his predetermined story line.

It's this type of coverage that drives our inflated sense of crime. For example, since 1993, the homicide rate nationwide dropped by 20 percent. Yet since 1993, coverage of murders on the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news increased by 721 percent. In 1993 the number of Americans ranking crime as the No. 1 problem increased six-fold.

Since most Americans thankfully don't experience violent crime first-hand, most know what they know about violence from the media, particularly television. Sixty-five percent of Americans report that most of what they know about violent crime they get from the media, compared to 21 percent whose primary source of information is personal experience. So, while 19 percent of those arrested in 1994 for violent crime were juveniles, national polls show Americans believe that juveniles commit 43 percent of all violent crime.

Perhaps that is because the majority of times teenagers are depicted on the evening news, it is in connection with some form of violence, even though fewer than one half of 1 percent of America's juveniles were arrested for a violent crime in 1996. When Attorney General Janet Reno reported that violent juvenile crime had dropped a combined 11.9 percent over the past two years in the same week that the New Jersey and Mississippi murders occurred, her announcement received minimal media coverage.

Unfortunately, such misinformation drives public policy. For the past two years, Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida has authored radical legislation to overhaul America's juvenile justice system. His bill would allow juveniles as young as age 13 to be jailed with adults, prior to even being convicted of any crimes. Recently, in a front page article in USA Today, Mr. McCollum, who chairs a House subcommittee on crime, claimed, "Teenagers account for the largest portion of all violent crime in America."

Politicians and the media have created a sensational atmosphere that makes people afraid to walk out their own front doors in generally very safe areas. Ninety-two percent of US counties experienced one or no juvenile homicides in 1994. Back in Jackson Township, where the local newspaper recently declared "there are no safe places anymore," the average is one juvenile homicide a year during the past five years.

In 1995, ultra-conservative researcher John DiIulio described America's children as "a rising tide of superpredators." Although the data do not support such hyperbole, it was a sound bite that has been regurgitated by politicians throughout America.

It's a tragedy when our media, academics, and elected officials feel at ease vilifying our youth, with scant evidence and on the basis of a handful of cases. The overwhelming majority of teenagers weren't arrested at all last year. And the majority of those who were, were arrested for petty crime. Yet legislators are designing a juvenile justice system based on a few cases that scream at them from news and talk shows desperate for material.

Ironically, the US juvenile court system, the first in the world to separate juveniles from adults, was founded in 1899. In our present state of media-driven hysteria, we're dangerously close to reverting to a 19th century mode of jurisprudence. This would be a baneful legacy to bequeath to our next generation.

* Vincent Schiraldi is director of the Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization in Washington.

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