By Vandana Sinha
WASHINGTON – Driven largely by a growing teen population, juvenile arrests last year rose to their highest level since 1979.
But police and social experts said the picture is not as bleak as it appears.
While the 54,965 juvenile arrests last year approached the 55,337 arrests of 1979, analysts said the percentage of juveniles arrested was down from the percentage 20 years ago.
The rate fell from about 4,600 arrests per 100,000 teens in 1975 to about 4,200 per 100,000 teens in 1996, according to the Maryland State Police and U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
And the arrest rate for serious juvenile crimes — including murder, rape, assault and theft — was almost twice as high in 1975 as it is now, according to state police records.
While adult arrests climbed steadily, rising 102 percent since 1975, adolescent arrests took a roller-coaster ride, peaking in 1976, plummeting through 1985 and inching back upward since, state police reports show.
Analysts said demographics, not criminal tendencies, explain the fluctuating arrest data for teens. Simply put, they said more crimes will be committed when there are more juveniles, the age group most likely to break the law.
“More people were having babies in the late 1940s, so if you add about 18 years to that time, you get the 1960s crime explosion,” said Brian Forst, professor of justice, law and society at American University.
“In ’75 and ’76, it was at the peak of arrests, then that population kind of petered out,” he said. “What explains the decline in crime after that, is you ran out of people in the 1980s.”
Juveniles made up 32 percent of the state’s population in the 1970s, the tail end of the Baby Boom, but by the 1980s, teens made up less than 25 percent of the overall population.
“Starting in the mid-80s, the children of the Baby Boom generation, whom people often refer to as the Echo Boom generation, correspond to another increase,” said David Myers, a criminology instructor at the University of Maryland specializing in juvenile delinquency.
But others say there is more than demographics at work in the lower percentage of teen arrests today.
Bruce Martin, counsel to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, pointed to a 1994 change in the law that makes it easier to try teens as adults.
“The legislature here and in other states shrunk the age for which kids could be tried as adults for committing serious, violent crimes,” Martin said. “People who would have been arrested as juveniles are arrested as adults.”
Police and community officials also highlight the state’s growing focus on law-enforcement techniques for today’s lower crime rate.
Anne Arundel and Prince George’s county police said they saw a recent increase in juvenile arrests during the first part of this year, due mainly to increased police patrols in high-crime areas during high-crime hours.
“Crime isn’t up, enforcement is up,” said Cpl. Timothy Estes, Prince George’s County Police spokesman.
Police added that parental involvement, community policing and other prevention programs helped cut down their numbers as well.
“Now prevention is the name of the game whereas before, it was once they were in the system, we would try to turn them around,” Estes said.
Residential programs for juveniles grew almost 10 percent from 1995 to 1996 and 8 percent more youths signed up for after- school care programs in the same period, said Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Marsha Koger. Both programs are run by the department.
Koger said preliminary numbers from juveniles being treated by the department showed that cases of violent person-to-person crime dropped 6 percent in fiscal year 1997, after climbing about 1,000 cases a year since 1994.
“If we continue to offer prevention programs and strengthen our efforts in those areas, hopefully we will continue to see a decrease,” she said.
But whether or not current efforts have any effect, Forst said youth crime may naturally “dampen out” because the Echo Boom’s children, the third surge in the juvenile population, will be stretched across more time.
“There was a spike [in births] in the ’40s. The second wave was more spread out,” Forst said. “By the third wave, the growth will be almost imperceptible.”