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Young Americans and Crime

NEWS reports about the vicious acts of youthful criminals cast a pall over the United States. Such accounts have become a staple of big-city journalism as heavily armed teenagers involved in drug dealing or gangs kill each other and, too often, innocent bystanders.

The picture of random violence can be exaggerated. Some experts estimate that even in the communities worst affected, only 5 to 10 percent of young men aged 12 to 24 are actively involved in criminal gang activity. But the fears generated by that relatively small number are rampant, and crime statistics are anything but reassuring.

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A decade of slow decline in serious crime among teens seemed to end abruptly in 1988. Between 1988 and 1990, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, the number of people younger than 18 arrested for murder jumped nearly 50 percent. Robbery arrests in the same age group rose by 35 percent, and aggravated assaults by 30 percent.

When the number of young people picked up for violent crimes increases by 29,000 in one year, as it did in 1990, the warning is clear.

One response has been higher numbers of young criminals referred directly to adult courts. The aim is to expose violent youths to penalties more in line with the severity of their crimes. In some instances, this route is probably justified, but its drawbacks are clear.

For one thing, young offenders entering adult court for the first time may end up with lighter punishment than if they had gone before a juvenile-court judge. For another, running teenagers through the regular criminal justice system works against rehabilitation, which the juvenile system is designed to enhance. In any case, only 5 percent of under-age offenders are now diverted to adult court, though that percentage is rising.

The juvenile justice systems in the US are feeling the brunt of the rise in youthful crime. That's where attention has to focus. If the country's juvenile detention centers aren't given the human and financial resources to help teach discipline, respect for others and oneself, and a sense that avenues other than crime are available, the outlook is for ever-more-hardened young criminals.

The rest of us, meanwhile, should try to keep the problem of youth crime in perspective. Though the arrest figures for teenagers are alarming, they often include group arrests that may result in relatively few convictions. Much of today's gang activity is economic and sociological at heart. Growing Asian and Latino gang involvement is largely the outgrowth of recent immigration flows and the problems of fitting in a new society. Gang members are staying with their gangs longer because other, lawful optio ns appear few in economically depressed cities.

Finally, contrary to some perceptions, all young criminals aren't black or brown: Seventy-one percent of persons under age 18 arrested in 1990 were white.

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