The United States is about to get some good news about juvenile crime. A soon-to-be-released report indicates that, contrary to public belief, juvenile crime rates have actually dropped in every year since 1975, except for a slight rise in 1978.
Recent US studies have reached the same conclusion. Yet 87 percent of those questioned believe juvenile crime has been rising sharply and steadily, a national survey conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation for the University of Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs in April showed.
Juvenile crime is a national problem. And those involved in the US policy debate about how to combat it agree that before they can develop an effective plan of action, they must first define the problem more accurately - a step that they are only now beginning to take.
Dr. James Howell, acting director of the National Institute for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington, D.C., says police records show that juveniles chalk up more than their share of arrests. In 1980 the 28 percent of America's population under 18 years old accounted for about 40 percent of all arrests, he says. But most of these arrests were for petty crimes. Juveniles consistently commit less than their share of violent and serious crimes, he adds.
The soon-to-be-released study, commissioned by Dr. Howell, combines and compares data from police and court records - something that has never been done before, according to several law-enforcement sources. It was prepared by the Center for the Assessment of the Juvenile Justice System (at the American Justice Institute in Sacramento, Calif.).
Do the new findings contradict the public's impression of juvenile crime trends? Yes, says study director W. Vaughan Stapleton. ''And I've got the numbers to prove it.''
The study documents sweeping changes in youth crime, with most rates in cities, suburbs, and rural areas dwindling. Rates for violent acts and major property crimes, two categories that seem to worry people most, dropped nearly everywhere.
Another study, Rethinking Juvenile Justice, shows similar trends. Its 50 -state breakdown details a drop in juvenile crime rates in all but six or seven states. And where the rates did not drop, they held steady or increased just slightly.
The study, released in June, was written by Barry Krisberg, senior vice-president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and Ira Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Hubert Humphrey Institute, who headed the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administration under President Carter.
In explaining why accurate reporting of juvenile crime is vitally needed, Mr. Schwartz says that ''public opinion is the engine that drives public policy.'' Often that public opinion is based on obsolete information.
''There is a time lag between when trends change and when the public (learns) of those changes,'' Schwartz says. ''It's quite possible that many (current) attitudes . . . are rooted in the juvenile crime rate upturn (of) the early 1970 s.''
Other experts agree with Schwartz about the dangers of distorted crime reporting. Executive deputy chief James Bannon of the Detroit Police Department, a 33-year veteran of the force who holds a PhD in criminology, tells what it did to his city.
The news media blew what he calls ''a few random events'' into a juvenile crime wave. ''There was very little truth to the media reports,'' Chief Bannon says, ''but it proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Virtually overnight, downtown Detroit became a ghost town.''
Hoping that they would appear on TV newscasts, Bannon says, ''all the youth gangs came downtown, and the crime rates just went crazy.''
To turn the situation around, the department packed the area with police, adopted a strict curfew, and held parents accountable for their children's acts, he says.
''People predicted we'd displace crime back to the neighborhoods,'' Bannon says. ''But it didn't happen, which was clear proof to me that the kids were showboating.''
''Within eight months, the area (had the) lowest (crime rates) in the entire city; lower than comparable areas in other cities,'' he says.
More subtle forms of distortion can also exist. For instance, when some passengers on a Boston subway train were assaulted and robbed last August, news reports characterized the 15 to 20 male assailants as ''kids, youths, juveniles, or young people,'' says Commissioner Edward M. Murphy of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. Yet, according to Richard L. Whelan, chief of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority police, two of three attackers identified so far are adults. Commissioner Murphy says such casual mistakes gives young people an undeserved bad name, and makes his department seem ineffective. This, Murphy says, can influence legislation and funding, and can undercut his ability to provide leadership and win community support.
It also makes it harder for police to apprehend offenders, Chief Whelan says. ''It slows you down,'' he adds. ''I think any police department in the country would tell you (this is) a problem.'' But he notes that the media are not always to blame. Often, he says, victims and witnesses to crime give misleading information to reporters.
Juvenile arrest rates themselves may be misleading, many experts say. About 80 percent of all youth crime occurs in groups, Commissioner Murphy notes. Statistics, he explains, do not differentiate among instigators, onlookers, and reluctant accomplices.
Prof. Franklin E. Zimring, director of the Center for Studies of Criminal Justice at the University of Chicago, calls this factor a ''well-known secret,'' in a research paper published last year in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. It's been common knowledge in the justice field for years, Professor Zimring writes, but is rarely taken into account in policy deliberations.
When analyzing the scope of the problem, several Justice Department officials noted that less than 1 percent of all police business results from juvenile violence. A recent National Institute for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention study also shows that young people are less likely than adults to inflict serious harm during violent acts. And most violent juvenile crime, studies and sources say, is aimed at other youths.
Several studies show that juveniles do not single out the elderly for attack, nor are they responsible for the bulk of the crimes against the elderly.
In analyzing types of behavior that promote crime, a research roundup prepared for in-house use at the Justice Department cites studies linking drug and alcohol use to violence and other delinquent acts.
But here, too, the outlook is somewhat hopeful. A 1980 survey of high school seniors, conducted by the Institute for Social Research, showed that in comparison with previous surveys, illicit drug use was declining or leveling off.