For the second straight year, violent crime by teenagers dropped, the Justice Department said Thursday.
While the rates for 1996 remain substantially higher than a decade ago, Attorney General Janet Reno saw the good news as a sign that efforts to stem juvenile violence are working.
“This drop, I think, is real now,” she said. “I don’t think we can talk about it as a blip.”
The Justice Department released figures showing that the rate of violent teen crime declined 9.2 percent from 1995 figures, following a 2.9 percent drop the year before.
The teenage homicide rate also dropped by 31 percent since 1993, the Justice Department said, citing FBI statistics to be released this weekend. Last year, the teen murder arrest rate dropped 10.7 percent over 1995, according to the FBI statistics.
While experts on crime called the numbers encouraging, they also noted that the rate of teenage violent crime remains much higher than it was a decade ago and much higher than the rate of violent crime by adults.
“It is like a 500-pound man who loses 50 pounds - that doesn’t mean he is thin,” said James Alan Fox, dean of Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice, who specializes in juvenile violence. “And that’s what happened here. This improvement is a good sign, but hardly suggests our problems are over.”
Indeed, for every 100,000 teenagers, 465 were arrested last year for violent crime, compared with 297 teens per 100,000 in 1983. Last year’s teen arrest rate for murder was about double what it was in the early 1980s.
By comparison, for every 100,000 adults, 318 were arrested for violent crimes last year.
The statistics were released at a time that news reports have been filled with shocking crimes allegedly committed by teenagers: Three teenagers were arrested on charges of kidnapping and stabbing to death a millionaire New Jersey businessman. A 16-year-old boy in Mississippi was accused of stabbing his mother to death, then shooting two girls at his school and wounding seven other students. A 15-year-old boy allegedly strangled an 11-year-old New Jersey boy who was selling candy door-to-door as a school fund-raiser.
Reno said high-profile media coverage of such crimes masked the recent national declines.
“What you all do tend to do sometimes is to report only the bad and not the good,” Reno told reporters Thursday. But, she added, “Juvenile arrest rates are still too high. We still continue to hear of too many serious violent crimes committed by young people.”
Violent crimes include murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Reno attributed the declines to many factors, including efforts by local police, prosecutors, community mentors and teenagers themselves to steer troubled youths to the right path.