Despite the FBI’s confirmation that juvenile crime was at a 15-year
low, the notion that youth crime was “out of control,” “increasingly
violent,” and “worse now than forty years ago” dominated the news
Juvenile crime in America has dropped approximately 40% since 1994, yet two-thirds of Americans believe that juvenile crime is rising. In the ten-year period between 1982 and 1992, total youth crime increased by less than one half of one percent.
Voters and legislators across the country, of whom 82% derive their assessment of youth crime severity from news stories, are approving increasingly punitive measures to address this imaginary increase in youth crime. Policies advocated as a direct result of consistent media misinformation ignore the utility of youth development, prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation – the founding principles of America’s Juvenile Justice system.
A media analysis of news coverage of juvenile justice generated over a 15-month period from January 1, 1999, to March 21, 2000, and involving over 1,500 articles, including news articles, op-eds, editorials, and letters-to-the-editor, were collected by searching through five major California newspapers. Also analyzed were wire stories with datelines originating in these same cities. Numerous articles republished by the five newspapers, but originating from national sources such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, were also captured. The Data Center in Oakland, California performed a major portion of the data collection.
The study was funded by Open Society Institute’s Center on Crime, Community and Culture, with additional funding was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Unitarian-Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock.
Of 817 articles where youth were perpetrators of crimes, advocates for youth were quoted less than 14 percent of the time, whereas law enforcement was quoted 43 percent of the time. Prosecutors and judges were quoted 31 percent of the time. Politicians were quoted 16 percent of the time. The people most affected by crime coverage, youth portrayed as perpetrators in news stories, were quoted less than 8 percent of the time.
This study identified the common policy story themes running through the media coverage of the public policy debate on juvenile justice, and also identified the messages (sound bites, direct quotes, and indirect quotes) from advocates that promoted these themes.
Despite the FBI’s confirmation that juvenile crime was at a 15-year low, the notion that youth crime was “out of control,” “increasingly violent,” and “worse now than forty years ago” dominated the news stories.
Factual information to the contrary, reporters most often did not question these assertions. When journalists did reference the recent FBI reports regarding the decrease in juvenile crime, incarceration proponents predicted a juvenile crime wave around the corner. Even then, journalists failed to point out that previous predictions had not materialized (see for example “Juvenile Arrests in U.S. Decline” Los Angeles Times, 10/18/99).
Running throughout news stories, the study noted, is the stereotype of the “super predator youth.” According to the study, “This theme was also driven by the failure of journalists to examine whether harsher penalties lead to lower juvenile crime rates and whether harsher penalties are more effective at lowering crime than other strategies.”
Of the 1536 stories on juvenile justice and youth crimes, only 46 articles or 3 percent even mentioned alternatives to incarceration. The assertion that the juvenile justice system “does not work” was prevalent in coverage. Moreover, the juvenile justice system was described as a failure because it is too “lenient” and “outdated.”
Proponents of harsher penalties frequently and consistently claimed that rehabilitation has either failed or should not be available to young people who commit violent crimes or drug crimes. “Journalists did not examine the impact of incarceration on youth,” the study noted, “whether rehabilitation works for young people, or what effect incarceration without rehabilitation has on the reduction of youth crime.”
A typical quote came from former California Governor Pete Wilson, who spoke of voters “voting to retake California’s neighborhoods, schools, and businesses from vicious street gangs who for too long have hidden behind a lenient and outdated juvenile justice system.” (“Authorities Fear Fallout, but Weigh Options,” Los Angeles Times, 3/14/2000)
In addition, almost none of the stories describing failures in the juvenile justice system studied systemic or institutional reasons for recidivism, or youth crime in general. The portrayal of rehabilitation strategies as failures, and incarceration strategies as successful, went unchallenged by journalists.
These prevailing attitudes and public policy, primarily based upon media promulgated misinformation, has resulted in not only an historic increase in the incarceration of children, but also the execution of young people. Since 1992, International law has prohibited the use of capital punishment against those who were under 18 at the time of a crime. The United States signed and ratified this International Covenant, but “reserved the right” to execute children and those who committed crimes while they were under 18.
The United States executed a total of 13 juvenile offenders since reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, and 10 of those executions occurred during the 1990s. Only four other countries are known to have executed juvenile offenders during this decade: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The US has executed more juvenile offenders than the other four countries combined.