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Youth crime is down, but media often casts a different narrative

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last week, a rookie player for the Washington, D.C., football team was shot on the street in early evening by a couple of teenagers who were apparently trying to steal his car. It was just the latest story that has people around the country on edge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: At least three teenagers have been charged with murder in Jackson.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Memphis police arrested a 17-year-old boy for a carjacking.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Four juveniles arrested for yesterday's fatal carjacking.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Investigators say the child stole a delivery car and dragged the delivery driver while trying...

MARTIN: With these kinds of disturbing reports, it can seem like we are in the middle of a youth crime wave. But our next guest says, hold on, that's just not true. He says violent crime committed by juveniles is actually down nationwide. That's according to data from the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and The Sentencing Project. And our guest is someone who's been following the issue closely because he's been working in the field of corrections and juvenile corrections for decades. His name is Vincent Schiraldi. He's now a senior fellow at the Columbia University Justice Lab, and he is a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and former head of Juvenile Corrections in Washington, D.C. So, Vincent Schiraldi, good to talk with you again. Thanks for joining us.

VINCENT SCHIRALDI: Thanks for having me on, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's be very clear about what you're saying and what you are not saying. You're not saying that violent crime is not happening, but you are saying, overall, that the trend is actually moving in a direction that people might be surprised by. Give us your evidence of this. Why do you say that?

SCHIRALDI: Yeah, no, I'm not saying that the reporters blew the story. They got the who, what, when and where right - that young people really did, or at least they're accused of doing, these tragic, terrible things. And the victims didn't deserve those things to happen to them. So that's not my point here at all. It's just that when you hear stories about juvenile crime is this, juvenile crime is that, because of a handful of cases, you know, it kind of leads people to believe that, overall, there's some sort of trend. And there is a trend. The trend is sharply declining juvenile crime, overall, and sharply declining violent juvenile crime.

MARTIN: And how do you know this?

SCHIRALDI: Data. I mean, every time some juvenile gets arrested, they report it to the police. And the police all report it in to the federal government. The federal government tells us that, since the late '90s, there's been an 84% decline in youth arrests and a two-thirds decline in violent crime.

MARTIN: Now, are you saying that violent crime overall is down? Because I think that it is a fact that homicides, at least, certainly during the COVID epidemic, have increased. So what are we missing here, in terms of how we understand this issue?

SCHIRALDI: Violent crime overall, if you go back to, you know, the year 2000 or the late '90s, is down. Homicides are down since then. But there's been an uptick over the last two years in some crimes - mostly homicides and gun crime. And in some places - not all places - but overall, if you go back 10, 20 years, we're doing much better.

MARTIN: So what is it that you think is - are you critical of the media for reporting on these crimes? Or what is your - how do you want us to think about this? Because as you said, as we started to - at the beginning of our conversation, look, if this happened to you, it's terrifying. It's deeply upsetting. And, you know, when kids are the age where they should be kind of at a splash park and are carjacking people or stealing, whatever, it's very upsetting. So how do you - how should we think about this?

SCHIRALDI: It's not just don't report or don't get the facts right. The thing is people don't know what they know about crime by and large from personal experience. About 72% of people say, when they form their opinions about crime, it's from news media accounts compared to 22% who say they know what they know from personal experience. So we are reliant on you guys. And if you report crime increasingly, then people will often think it's increasing. But there's been about a two-thirds decline in the number of kids locked up. At the same time, we're actually treating the kids when they screw up, rather than just throwing them in these facilities that often exacerbate the crime.

MARTIN: What I think I hear you saying is that you are concerned that this misperception leads to bad policy...

SCHIRALDI: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...And putting kids in dangerous situations that actually yield worse results.

SCHIRALDI: Absolutely. There are politicians all over the country who are starting to ratchet up punishment against kids. The governor of Louisiana has now proposed to move 24 young people from a juvenile facility outside of New Orleans into Angola. And where they're going to house them is the former death row. And a lot of this happens as a result of moral panic. Doesn't mean that violence isn't too high in America, doesn't mean that violence isn't real, but when things get hyped up like this, many elected officials really sort of go for the - you know, go for the fences in ways that can be damaging to young people and actually don't improve public safety.

MARTIN: What is your take on why, though, the level of violence in this country has increased, at least from 2020 relative to 2019, you know, overall?

SCHIRALDI: Sure. Well, you know, I think that, you know, obviously, we don't - I'm not saying this is based on solid research because we haven't had enough time to research it yet. But I think that, you know, there are a lot of reasons people don't commit crimes. And one of them is, sort of, how cohesive is our society? How attached are we to the kinds of institutions that are going to kind of keep us calm and law-abiding - education, work, family, social networks? And all of those eroded severely during the pandemic.

MARTIN: That's Vincent Schiraldi. He's a senior fellow at the Columbia University Justice Lab, and he has a very long background in corrections and juvenile corrections. Vincent Schiraldi, thanks so much for talking with us again.

SCHIRALDI: Thank you very much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.