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
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
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