Don’t Forget, Violent Juvenile Crime is Actually in Decline

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john-lash-smAlex Hribal allegedly stabbed 22 people, including a security guard, at his high school in a Pittsburgh suburb. He used two large kitchen knives and in the space of five minutes or so ran through the halls and into classrooms attacking his classmates. Hribal, who is 5 feet 3 inches tall, was subdued by staff members and is to be charged as an adult. Thankfully, although several of his victims were seriously injured, no one died and all are expected to fully recover.

According to Hribal’s attorney, he is not a “weirdo” or a “loner.” He is 16, and as of now there is no evidence that he was bullied at school, suffers from mental illness or that his family is  anything less than ideal. In short, there isn’t a convenient or satisfactory explanation for his actions, which makes it difficult to fill up the neverending news cycle with anything interesting.

The story, admittedly sensational, has gotten a lot of press the last few days, with the usual stream of questions about how safe schools are and what society can do to stop this kind of thing from happening again. The answer, most likely, is nothing. There will be cases that defy simple explanation.

A more interesting story, though one less likely to get as much attention, is the ongoing drop in juvenile crime, especially violent crime. The sheer number of crimes can be deceiving. Consider that “in 2011 the serious violent crime offending rate was six crimes per 1,000 juveniles ages 12-17.” In 1993, at the peak of the juvenile crime rate, there were 52 such crimes per 1,000. Juvenile violent crime made up 26 percent of all violent crime in 1993, but around 10 percent in 2011.

Similarly, the chances of a juvenile being the victim of violence have decreased as well. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of serious violent crime against youth dropped by 77 percent from 1994 to 2010. For males the drop was 82 percent, resulting in males and females experiencing similar rates of victimization. Homicides dropped by more than 60 percent.

One lesson that we can draw from this is to look more carefully at facts and less at stories that capture our attention. Mass school attacks, while frightening, make up a sliver of the crimes kids perpetrate or fall victim to. We don’t want to re experience something like the superpredator theories of the ‘90s, which were based on fear and overreaction by lawmakers (as well as sensationalism by news outlets).

The actual cause, as we know now, of the rise in crime at that time was readier access to handguns and increased policing. The former led to more violence (or at least more serious violence) while the latter drove up incarceration rates.

Hribal’s crimes will lead to much analysis and theories about what could be done differently, but the remedies will fall short in two ways. First, the unintended consequences will probably do more harm than good, leading to 10-year-olds being suspended for pointing their fingers “execution style” at another kid. The second failure of any response based on events like this is that it fails to address the real dangers to kids. The chances of a kid being murdered at school in the United States are infinitesimal. Let’s hope that any response is measured and appropriate, and that we can keep our eyes on the facts.