"...changes in relative punishments could account for 60 percent of the differential growth rate in juvenile and adult violent crime between 1978 and 1993."
A walk around the streets of New York, Houston, Los Angeles, and just about any other major city confirms what the headlines tell us: crime is down. Yet the overall good news on crime is marred by a soaring juvenile crime rate. For instance, the rate at which juveniles were arrested for murder rose 177 percent between 1978 and 1993 even as the murder arrest rate for adults dropped by 7 percent. Over the same time span, the violent crime arrest figure for juveniles jumped by 79 percent while the comparable adult figure rose by only 31 percent. Juvenile violence, much of it senseless and brutal, has led to such fearsome explanations as the "super-predator" theory--that an amoral and ruthless generation of adolescents is behind the crime spree.
But NBER Faculty Research Fellow Steven Levitt carefully challenges such notions in Juvenile Crime and Punishment (NBER Working Paper No. 6191). He asks whether the striking divergence between the adult and juvenile crime rates is a rational response by teenagers to the likelihood and severity of punishment. For instance, by at least one crude measure (the ratio of adult state and federal prisoners per violent crime committed in that year compared to the corresponding ratio for juveniles), criminal sanctions against youngsters were comparable to those for adults in 1978. But they were only half as severe by 1993. Levitt finds that changes in relative punishments could account for 60 percent of the differential growth rate in juvenile and adult violent crime between 1978 and 1993.
A number of important results emerge in his wide-ranging paper. For instance, state level data strongly suggest that lower rates of juvenile crime are associated with stiffer punishments. Here's one indication: violent crime in groups reaching the age of majority fell by nearly 4 percent in those states where the juvenile courts were most lenient compared to the adult courts. In sharp contrast, states that were relatively harsh with juvenile offenders vis-a-vis adults saw a 23 percent surge in violent crime with the passage into adulthood.
Does the severity of juvenile punishment have any implications for the likelihood of committing crime as an adult? Levitt does not unearth a convincing connection between the punitiveness of juvenile justice and later criminal involvement. It may be that the message that crime does not pay is roughly offset by the stigmatizing effects of confinement, he speculates.
It's hard not to conclude after reading Levitt's paper that stiff sanctions will do the job when it comes to combating youth crime. But Levitt is careful to emphasize that his analysis does not suggest a clear public policy response--more needs to be known about what works and what doesn't among the different kinds of juvenile treatment programs.