Here Come the New Barbarians!

The media, academia and law enforcement teamed up at a forum sponsored by the Times Orange County and UC Irvine on Feb. 4 to dispense the official line on crime. It's a propaganda strategy that mangles reality but remains immensely profitable for the assembled. The official line: "Crime's down . . . dramatically!" as new Sheriff Mike Carona affably beamed, setting the forum's "happy cop/sad cop" tone. "That's the good news." That's because baby boomers have aged out of their crime-prone younger years. "But the bad news," Carona lamented, is that "those of us in law enforcement know the vast majority of crimes are committed by males ages 16 to 25." The growing horde of teenagers (a brown and yellow peril, panelists hinted) portends that "in five to seven years, we can anticipate crime rates to go up dramatically." UCI criminologist James Meeker, who co-directs the joint scholar-copper Gang Incident Tracking System venture, echoed Carona's "good analysis" of the "demographic" hazard posed by a glut of young males. Santa Ana Police Lieutenant Michael Foote agreed. "This coming generation of criminals," he said, threatens "to just overburden us." Translation: keep pumping up police budgets and academics' grant coffers because here come the barbarians. The forum to "stimulate dialogue between Orange County leaders and the community" began with UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone invoking the university's "obligation" to "get beneath the issues." Then forum organizers made sure nothing of the sort happened by restricting the audience to written, screened questions that moderator Stephen Burgard, a Times Orange County editor, lobbed at panelists. The panel's politically attuned homilies bore no resemblance to the realities shown in Orange County's detailed annual criminal-justice profiles over the past three decades. To the contrary: when county crime rates and the percent of the county's population consisting of teenagers are plotted on the same graph, a shocking reality emerges-more teens means less crime. True, from 1968 to 1975, the growing teenage population accompanied more crime (banditry rose rapidly among '70s grown-ups, too). But then, even that superficial, Stats-1 correlation-equals-causation fallacy vanished. From 1975 to 1983, the teen population rose but crime fell; from 1983 to 1990, teen numbers dropped but crime rose; from 1990 to 1998, the adolescent mob grew by 30,000, but crime plunged. The reason: crime trends over the past two decades have been driven not by increasingly law-abiding teens and young adults, but by rising tens of thousands of felonious, drug-plagued baby boomers. Let us repeat until the sheriff finally admits-and the experts and major media finally publicize-what his own statistics collected at taxpayer expense show: the reason crime is down is that today's young people are far less criminal than youths of the past. Conversely, today's over-30 types, far from withering into a testosterone-lite dotage when they no longer "maraud" (in the obsolete criminology doctrine recited by Carona and Meeker), are more drugged and thugged. Orange County's crime profiles show that the two-decade fall in teen crime is phenomenal. In 1977, 7,000 youths were arrested for felonies; in 1997's larger teen population, there were just 4,600 arrested -a rate decline of 40 percent. But this healthy youth trend was more than offset by a boom of 10,000 more felonies every year by the post-30 set, whose per-capita rate of lawlessness more than doubled. Contrary to Carona's fossil notion that "the vast majority of crimes" are committed by young men, the county's 1997 report shows that miscreants older than 25 account for 60 percent of arrests-and an even higher percentage of crime, since clearance reports show the average older offender commits many more crimes than the average juvenile one. The rapid aging of California's cuffees is why the state will spend more to lock up senescent drugoids ($2 billion to imprison the 26,000 over-30 inmates who were newly fitted for orange suits in 1997 for their terms) than to educate university students.Today's real suburban shame, studiously evaded by the UCI/Times forum, is rampant domestic violence (14,000 cases reported to the county's law enforcement in 1996, far exceeding violent street muggings). If youth crime does go up, a chunk of the blame must rest with luminaries who sidestep the unsettling fact that for women and children, home is the most dangerous place for violent victimization. It's hard to believe that UCI/Times' august panelists could be utterly unaware of 20 years of clear, readily available county crime statistics. And surely they know that recent Gallup, RAND and local surveys show a frightened, string-'em-up public vastly exaggerates the amount of crime youths commit. Thus, it is deeply disturbing that while the all-white panel broadcast the menace of more teens (especially "roving" Asian and Latino youth gangs), no one broached the significant fact that it is older folks (mainly whites), not teenagers of any color, who show the most massive and troubling increases in violent and drug-related felonies. In a county whose over-30 population is overwhelmingly white and whose youth population is predominantly of darker color, groundless alarmism about a "coming youth-crime epidemic" stokes racial fears even as the panel bemoaned public anxieties.The real problem is that however fraudulent, the official line on crime continues to fatten politicians' crusades, academic grant budgets, TV ratings and newspaper sales. In 1999 as in 1899, authorities exploit popular fears to advance their own interests by blaming crime on whatever fearsome group politicians proclaim the menace to the motherland (Italians, Chinese or Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the century; blacks and Latinos throughout). Such race-biased "demographic scapegoating" has been soundly refuted by research, just as analysis shows today's all-purpose, demographic crime scourge-more young men, particularly swarthy ones-has nothing to do with crime rates. Today's new dogma is the same as the old dogma: lawlessness is just a young man's sport, wife- and kid-beating ain't real crime, and folks over 30 have aged out of their kiddie-badness. Which makes all the more ironic the Times' Jan. 2 editorial urging readers to look "at the statistics" and "context" on crime, not the exaggerated rhetoric and lurid news scenes. "How often do we get crime information presented with proper perspective? Not nearly enough. . . . Most Americans remain largely clueless," the article lamented. The UCI/Times' forum fingered the culprit: top authorities and the press perpetrate and profit from sensational anecdotes, embellished statistics, zilch perspective and a clueless public's fears. Equally scary is the topic for the March 20 forum: drug abuse. UC Irvine social ecologist Mike Males' latest bile, Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation, was just published by Common Courage Press.


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