Media distortions of youth crime

 

This past holiday season was spent on Cape Cod.  Normally when I go away from the holidays I try to take a break from my routine and not pay much attention to news relating to crime and delinquency.  However, I could not help but notice the first of a series of articles appearing in the Cape Cod Times shortly after I arrived.  The title itself (“Younger and twice as violent”) conveys a message to the reader that is not uncommon in this day of media hype and distortion.  The message seams to be that crime is being committed by people younger than ever before and, even more frightening, the crimes are getting more violent with each passing day. After reading the series I just had to write a comment.

 

The appearance of this series is no coincidence, as it comes about one year after a particular brutal killing of 16-year-old Jordan Mendes by Mykel Mendes (Jordan’s half-brother) and Kevin Ribeiro – both of whom were 13 at the time. The writers note that: “Local authorities say the case was extreme and unique in its circumstances for Cape Cod, but some experts argue that, nationally, teen murders are becoming more common.”

I do not want to dismiss the horrible nature of the murder of this 16-year old boy, nor the others who have been killed of late on Cape Cod - a few other cases are reported in the first part of this series (and it is interesting to note that each of these cases involved adults 18 or older).  What I object to is the misleading nature of the points made in these articles, the exaggerated hype (in terms of conveying the message that crime among young people is “out of control”) and in a few cases some downright untruths.

The untruths include a statement attributed to Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin.  Levin stated that “Beginning in the mid-1980s, we observed a precipitous increase in murders and other serious crimes committed by 13-, 14-year-old boys and we've really almost had to redefine the lower limit of the violence-prone age group.”  This statement might cause the uninformed reader to conclude that the increase among this age group is still occurring today, which is patently not the case.  According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports in 2008 only 3.3% of all arrests for violent crime involved those age 13 and 14. During the past ten years the arrests of those under 18 for violent crimes dropped by about 9%.  The FBI report of 1999 noted that in the decade of the ‘90s violent crime by youths declined by 10%; in 1999 those age 13 and 14 accounted for just 3.7% of the violent crimes (not much different from 2008). 

 

Even in the 1980s the violent crime rate of juveniles was not nearly as bad as opinion makers made it out to be. Victimization studies support this.  According to these studies the rate of violent crime by those under 18 was actually declining during the latter part of the decade. Actually overall violence committed by youth in the 1980s was about the same as it was in the 1970s.

 

The authors of this article produce some very misleading tables, such as those pertaining to gunshot reports and overall crime statistics for Barnstable.  In neither of these tables do they report what age group the figures pertain to.  Do these crime statistics apply to all those under 18?  Are these crimes reported to the police or arrests? Are these figures expressed as rates (per 100,000) or just actual numbers? What is the overall context of the gunshots?  What proportion directly relate to crimes?  How many turned out to be something other than guns (e.g. firecrackers, automobiles)?

 

Contrary to the image conveyed by the title, the authors note that youth crime on the Cape has been going down (in a follow-up article the authors note that on the Cape “the number of juvenile delinquency complaints dropped by 36 percent between 2006 and 2008), but then stated that “the severity of the crimes the police are seeing has reached a new peak.”  This statement was followed by the following quote from Barnstable Police Chief Paul MacDonald: “There aren't more weapons on the street, but it's more of a different mind-set by the individuals out there. They are certainly more willing to use them.” Retired Judge Richard Connon is quoted as follows: “There's a lot of younger defendants that come in here that show absolutely no remorse. They don't feel compassion for anybody that is suffering.”  The article brings out similar quotes from other public officials.  Incidentally, most of the cases they are referring to are actually adults not juveniles (one of many contradictions in this article).

 

These are merely opinions based upon individual perceptions, not facts (what proportion of kids coming to court as less remorseful?). It gives the reader the sense that “kids these days” are worse than ever, which is not true at all, as a recent study has found.

 

To their credit, the writers of this series note the context within which youth crime occurs, noting the large percentage living in poverty and other negative circumstances connected to the youth population. More than 100 years of research has reinforced the fact that these social conditions are largely responsible for crime (regardless of age).  We must continue to work on the reduction of such conditions and provide as many alternatives for young offenders (and youth in general) as possible.  I and many others have provided many examples of these alternatives. (For examples see my web site, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the Office and Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.)  As noted in a Times editorial, there are several on-going successful efforts (e.g. Barnstable County Sheriff's Youth Academy and a diversion program operated within the district attorney’s office) to address youth problems. These and others should be continued. It is a shame that money for prevention programs on the Cape has been reduced in recent years.

 

Almost 90 years ago Walter Lippmann wrote his classic work Public Opinion in which he argued that it is almost impossible for people to know very much through their own direct experience. Instead, Lippmann noted that we depend on "pictures in our heads," many delivered by the news media, to inform us about what is going on in the world.  The news media has an important responsibility to be as accurate as possible.  The media should rely more on factual evidence than perceptions, which often are a product of “confirmation bias” – where you tend to look for evidence that supports a preexisting bias and ignore contrary evidence.

 © 2010, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.