Sunday, April 22, 2012

The half-empty glass: Reporting on juvie crime accentuates the negative

In a bit of a glass-half-empty story, the Houston Chronicle reported yesterday that sexual assaults are the only major juvenile crime category in Harris County which has not declined since 2007 ("Sex crimes by juvenile offenders are on the rise in Harris County," April 21):
In the last five years, the number of juveniles committing sexual assaults has increased 17 percent in Harris County while most other major juvenile crimes have shown significant declines, probation records show.
Sex offenses climbed from 121 to 142 during that period, while other violent juvenile crimes declined such as murder and robbery, dropping by 28 percent and 24 percent.
Here's a chart accompanying the story which graphically displays the data:

Writes reporter Cindy Horswell, "The U.S. Justice Department says 36 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by other children. Five percent of all sex offenders are younger than nine, and 16 percent are younger than 12, records show."

Certainly it's curious that sexual assaults alone continue to increase, with all other juvenile crime in Harris County seemingly in decline. But when the reporter jumps directly to the suggestion that we now have a new problem thanks to rising access to pornography, we've abandoned reasonable discussion for the kind of hype that sells papers but does little else. That we're dealing with very small numbers and countervailing overall trends encourages particular caution in over-interpreting the data. (That also goes for numerical declines in categories with small totals, including murder data.) In a jurisdiction the size of Harris County, a delta of 21 cases over five years is still small enough that any number of factors could affect it, from reporting rates by victims to charging decisions to changes in investigative focus by police.

Indeed, the same data could have been used to emphasize how far juvenile crime overall has fallen, a trend that's not limited to Houston. A recent report from the Juvenile Probation Commission (large pdf, p. 16) offered a statewide assessment that mostly jibes with Harris County's juvie crime drop: "In fiscal year 2011, there were 79,732 formal referrals to juvenile probation departments throughout the state. This represented an 11% decrease in referrals from the previous year (89,419 formal referrals in fiscal year 2010)." In 2001, according TJPC (see this report [pdf]), statewide juvenile referrals totaled more than 113,000, so we're talking about a significant drop in juvie crime over the last decade, even as the state's population ballooned.

The really good news, statewide even sexual offenses may be on the decline. The TJPC last year reported a slight drop in 2011 of juveniles in sex offender treatment programs, to 1,065 from 1,164 the year before. They also reported a drop in those receiving "residential placements" as sex offenders, from 368 to 310. While Grits can't immediately locate comparable data back to 2007, those numbers further recommend caution when interpreting Harris' situation. If expanded access to porn really caused an increase in Harris County sex assaults by juveniles, why hasn't it done so statewide?

Overall, juvenile crime trends in Texas are quite encouraging. But unfortunately good news on crime doesn't sell papers, hence the media focus on the single Harris County category with a worse outcome.

Grits continues to believe larger macro trends having little to do with the justice system account for much of the recent crime decline for both juveniles and adults. After all, even if you believe that keeping adults in prison longer (and for lessor offenses) has contributed to the overall, long-term crime reduction, that doesn't explain why juvie crime is declining even more rapidly. I often wonder if one of the biggest factors may be the rise of the internet, cell phones and video games, which occupy an extraordinary amount of youths' time that in my day would have been spent running the streets with much more potential for getting into trouble. The kid playing Grand Theft Auto IV for hours (or for that matter watching porn) is at home staring at a screen, not out jacking my car, spraying graffiti, burglarizing my house, etc.

Whatever the cause, with regards to juvie crime the glass is more than half full, scary headlines aside. It may sell newspapers, but hyping juvenile crime during this period of historic decline makes it harder to do more of what we are doing right and risks repeating old mistakes if the trend really does turn around.


Anonymous said...

IMO, which may not be worth even 2 cents, this "increase in juvie sex crime" does not represent an actual increase in sex play with kids. "Lets play doctor!" Rather it's the laws being ramped up and enforcement ramped up. Very very few of the boys in the small rural school
where I attended were NOT guilty of some kind of sex play.

Anonymous said...

The no snitch policy in high crime neighborhoods works! No one opens their mouth, no crime is reported so left wingers can claim that the crime rates have gone down. It all works out, don't you think? Unreported crime--what a grand idea. At the hospital, the victim says, "I fell."

The commentators say, "See, he fell!" Everybody is happy.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:51, I'm curious about your theory: Given that Texas politics has been mostly controlled by conservative Republicans for more than a decade, why do you think they'd have any incentive to skew data "so left wingers can claim that the crime rates have gone down"?

Also, the "no snitching" meme (not a "policy" nor a "movement," as you've claimed, repetitively) doesn't explain why crime victimization surveys show similar crime declines. If the decrease resulted from mere intimidation, those incidents would still be reflected in survey data, which instead corroborate reported crime declines.

Everyone's entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

Anonymous said...

Nobody has to skew data. If people are afraid to report, then there is no data. People can sit over on East Austin and think they are acting as the mouthpiece of the gangs by saying, "Hey, gang members don't intimidate nobody. In fact, there are no gang members."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:14, don't let facts get in the way of your opinion, by all means.

If what you say is true it would be reflected in crime victimization surveys. Instead, they indicate crime is declining just like the reported data.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

11:51 / 5:14 - Im thinking is the same anon who wont put his name to his comments.
I think "He Fell".....on his head.....Bless His Heart.
I'm just sayin.

Anonymous said...

"5% younger than 9"; exactly what does a 9 year old do to be charged with sexual assualt? We're talking about 3rd graders. Ah, I guess that's like when I made out in high school with my boyfriend who was already out of school (yes, we did) and then we married and have four grown children. I just don't get it.

RAS said...

Felony drug arrests are down 70%; is drug use down 70%? It's hard to believe drug dealing has dropped that much. Can it be that they aren't being charged but being put on some program instead?