The arrest rate of juveniles for four major violent crimes - murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault - plunged 36 percent from its 1994 peak to 1999, reaching the lowest point since 1988, according to FBI statistics cited in a report by Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Experts say the decline of crack cocaine and the violent gangs that peddled it, combined with big city police crackdowns on illegal guns and expanded after-school crime prevention programs, have turned around the juvenile crime wave that pushed murder arrest rates for youths, age 10 to 17, up from 1987 to a peak in 1993.
That violent youth-crime wave of the late 1980s and early 1990s was overwhelmingly concentrated among black teen-agers in the nation's largest cities, and the murder declines have been greatest among them.
Fox's data estimating actual offense rates rather than merely arrest rates showed that the rate of murders committed by blacks age 14-17 fell from 244.1 per 100,000 youth in 1993 to 67.3 in 1999. The white teen-age murder rate fell from 21.8 per 100,000 in 1993 to 10.2 in 1999, Fox said.
"The reduced level of violent crime shows how the power of prevention, when combined with constructive intervention and strengthened juvenile justice systems that hold every offender accountable, makes our communities safer," Attorney General Janet Reno said.
But polls have showed that word of the juvenile crime turnaround have been slow to sink in among the public. In 1998, 62 percent of adults polled by Beldon, Russonello and Stewart for the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative believed youth crime was on the increase, at a time when it had dropped for five years to a 25-year low in the government's largest crime survey.
"America's kid are committing fewer crimes than they have in three decades," said Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute, which advocates alternatives to incarceration. "But this does not seem to be making it into the public consciousness."
Highly publicized school killings, such as the Columbine High School killing in which 15 people died in 1999, overwhelmed news of a decline in school violence.
A 1999 NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found 71 percent thought it "likely" a school shooting could occur in their community during a year in which there was just a one in 2 million chance of being killed in an American school.
"We see lifeless bodies in school yards around country, and they are much more powerful in shaping public attitudes than the lifeless statistics we see in our newspapers," Fox said.
Two juvenile arrest rates that had climbed during most of the 1990s began to drop recently: Drug abuse violations fell 13 percent and curfew and loitering violations dropped 17 percent from 1997 to 1999.
Fox and others have said noted that the demand for crack cocaine abated during the mid-1990s and the gangs that peddled it either eliminated their competition or made peace with it.
"The police also played a role," Fox said. "They targeted gang members, traced illegal guns and aggressively confiscated guns, particularly in New York, Boston and Los Angeles where the biggest drops were."
A booming economy helped too. "Not because a teen-ager would give up the profits from crack for a McDonald's salary, but because it meant the cities had money to spend on policing, crime prevention, recreation and after-school programs," Fox said.
Increased imprisonment was a smaller factor, Fox said, because even though more juveniles were sentenced to prison during the decade they still were locked up less often and for much less time than adult offenders.
By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN
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