Juvenile Crime in Washington, DC

December 1, 2003

ublic officials in Washington, D.C. are debating new juvenile justice
policies. A number of high-profile crimes in 2003 prompted city leaders
to reconsider the District of Columbia’s approach to dealing with youth
violence. In early October of 2003, a Washington bus driver was hit by
a stray bullet during a daylight gun battle between rival youth gangs on
a busy street in a residential area. Later that month, a 16-year-old bystander
was shot fatally as he was leaving a high school dance. The 15-year-old shooter
was aiming at members of a rival gang or “crew.”
After nearly a decade of falling crime rates, violent crimes such as these have prompted
widespread fears that Washington may be witnessing a new epidemic of murder by young
people. Violence—especially gun violence—alarms the public and stirs city officials to act.
But do these recent tragedies really represent a significant new trend, and how should the
city respond?
So far, the ideas being advanced by Washington leaders represent relatively meager changes in
the legal process that are unlikely to have a broad or lasting effect on crime and violence. Rather
than focusing their efforts on preventing serious crime and improving the safety of D.C. neighborhoods,
elected officials are proposing new legal penalties for violent juveniles. In particular,
they want to make it easier to move juvenile offenders into the criminal (adult) justice system
for trial and punishment.1
A member of the D.C. city council recently introduced a bill to lower the age at which juvenile
offenders charged with serious crimes may be tried as adults from 16 to 15. Another bill would
shift the burden of proof to defendants in cases involving the potential transfer of a juvenile to
adult court. Accused juveniles would have to prove that adult trials are not needed, instead of
the government being required to prove that they are needed.
Why are Washington officials focusing on policies to increase the use of adult court for juvenile
offenders? The number of youth likely to be affected by these changes is relatively small, perhaps
a few dozen per year. Furthermore, research on criminal court transfer suggests that while such
policies may be popular with the public they will have very little effect on overall public safety
and may even increase the odds that youth will commit serious crimes in the future.2
While states such as Maryland and Missouri are expanding their use of crime prevention
programs, increasing opportunities for youth, and working harder to rehabilitate young
offenders, policymakers in Washington, D.C. are calling for an expansion of adult-style
punishment for violent juveniles. The proposals being debated in Washington suggest that
the city is being overwhelmed with violent juvenile crime and that new circumstances demand
JUSTICE POLICY CENTER
URBAN
INSTITUTE
DECEMBER 2003
JEFFREY A. BUTTS
p
new solutions, especially new ways of handling seriously violent
youth. They suggest that the adult justice system is better
equipped to protect public safety than is the juvenile justice
system.
Is Washington, D.C. experiencing a significant increase in
juvenile violence? Is juvenile violence increasing more than
adult violence? If the adult justice system is the answer to
Washington’s violent crime problem, does this mean that
violent crime by adults has been going down? This policy
brief examines these issues by reviewing the latest data on
crime and violence in the City of Washington and the nation.
JUVENILE CRIME FELL NATIONWIDE FROM
1994 TO 2002
Juvenile crime in the United States fell dramatically in recent
years. Serious and violent juvenile crime plummeted nationwide
to levels not seen in a generation. In 2002, there were
approximately 92,000 arrests of juveniles charged with one of
the four most serious violent crimes (murder, rape, aggravated
assault, and robbery).3 Just eight years earlier in 1994, police
across the country reported more than 150,000 juvenile arrests
for these offenses. On a per capita basis, the rate of violent
crime arrests (282 per 100,000 juveniles) was lower in 2002
than at any time since 1973.
The national rate of juvenile murder arrests was 65 percent
lower in 2002 than in 1990. Even compared with 1980, murder
arrests in 2002 were down more than 30 percent. Other serious
offenses by juveniles showed similar declines. Compared
with 1990, the per capita arrest rate for robbery was down
50 percent, aggravated assault dropped 20 percent, burglary
slipped by 49 percent, and the juvenile arrest rate for auto
theft plunged 59 percent between 1990 and 2002.
2
MAKING SENSE OF THE NUMBERS
What do these juvenile arrest statistics mean? How can
arrest rates be translated into something more meaningful?
Think of a large high school with 1,000 students. Recent
crime statistics from Washington, D.C. suggest that 7
students from that school would have been arrested for
a serious violent offense in 2003.
This rate is up slightly from 2002, when only 5 students in
every 1,000 would have been arrested for a violent crime.
In 1995, however, a high school with 1,000 students
would have expected 15 students to be arrested for
serious violence.
In a high school with 1,000 students, how many pupils
would likely be arrested for a serious, violent crime in
Washington, D.C.?
Year Arrests per 1,000
1995 15
2000 7
2002 5
2003 7
Source: Annual Arrest Statistics, Metropolitan Police
Department, Washington, D.C.
Research on criminal court transfer suggests
that while such policies may be popular with
the public, they will have very little effect
on overall public safety and may even increase
the odds that youth will commit serious crimes
in the future.
3
TABLE 1. JUVENILE ARRESTS IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
Number of Arrests Percent Change
1995 2002 2003a 1995–2002 1995–2003
Violent Offenses 641 245 307 –62% –52%
Murder 13 1 1 –92 –92
Rape 7 2 4 –71 –43
Robbery 300 103 132 –66 –56
Aggravated Assault 320 139 170 –57 –47
Other Offenses
Burglary 74 36 36 –51% –51%
Larceny 76 55 56 –28 –26
Auto Theft 769 555 662 –28 –14
Other Assaults 262 278 293 6 12
Weapons 253 77 99 –70 –61
Drug Offenses 652 357 341 –45 –48
All Offenses 4,195 2,422 2,599 –42% –38%
a 2003 figures are weighted estimates, using data from January through October of 2003.
Source: Monthly Arrest Statistics, Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, D.C.
JUVENILE ARRESTS IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
WERE UP SLIGHTLY IN 2003
The Urban Institute recently obtained data about juvenile
arrests in Washington, D.C. from the city’s Metropolitan
Police Department (MPD). Data from January through
October of 2003 were adjusted to represent a full year so they
could be compared with arrest data from 1995 through 2002.4
Unless the monthly volume of juvenile arrests in November
and December of 2003 turns out to be sharply different from
arrests in January through October, the analysis that follows
provides a good estimate of juvenile crime trends through
2003.
Juvenile crime trends in Washington are similar to those seen
across the country. Juvenile violence in 2003 is significantly
lower than a decade ago. The number of juvenile arrests for
violent crime dropped 52 percent between 1995 and 2003,
from 641 to 307 (table 1).While violent crime arrests grew
somewhat between 2002 and 2003, the level of violent juvenile
crime in 2003 is still low relative to 1995.
Recent incidents of youth violence in the city do
not yet represent a significant trend, and violence
by adults is still far more pervasive and more
deadly.
4
Non-violent offenses were also down in general. Juvenile
arrests for burglary fell 51 percent between 1995 and 2003.
Larceny was down 26 percent, auto theft was 14 percent lower,
weapons offenses declined by 61 percent, and juvenile drug
arrests were 48 percent lower. The only major category of
juvenile crime that grew overall between 1995 and 2003 was
non-aggravated assault. Arrests for minor assaults without
serious injury climbed 12 percent between 1995 and 2003.
Even when the numbers of juvenile arrests are adjusted for
population size, the dominant trend in juvenile crime in the
District of Columbia between 1995 and 2003 has been downward
(figure 1). For example, the per capita rate of juvenile
arrests for violent crime dropped from 147 to 66 arrests per
10,000 youth between 1995 and 2003. In all categories of
violent crime, the juvenile arrest rate was significantly lower
in 2003 than in 1995, although for several offenses (e.g.,
robbery and aggravated assault) the juvenile arrest rate grew
slightly between 2002 and 2003.
TABLE 2. JUVENILE DELINQUENCY CASES IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
Number of Referrals Percent Change
1990 2000 2002 1990–2000 1990–2002
Reasons for Referral
Acts against Persons 1,039 676 664 –35% –36%
Acts against Property 1,549 766 742 –51 –52
Public Order Offenses 1,870 940 696 –50 –63
Other 255 113 139 –56 –45
All Offenses 4,713 2,495 2,241 –47% –52%
Source: Annual Report of the D.C. Courts, 1982 to 2002. Washington, D.C.
JUVENILE COURT CASES IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
DECLINED THROUGH 2002
The falling juvenile crime rate in D.C. can be seen clearly in
the declining number of young offenders being referred to
juvenile court to be tried on delinquency charges. Juvenile
court referrals dropped markedly in recent years. Between
1990 and 2002, the total number of law violations referred for
trial in D.C. juvenile court fell 52 percent, from 4,713 to 2,241
(table 2).
Juvenile court referrals were down for all major offense categories
during the past decade. Referrals for property offenses
fell from 1,956 to 742 between 1988 and 2002. Referrals for
person offenses peaked at more than 1,300 in 1994, and then
began to decline, reaching a low of 664 in 2002.Most of the
drop in juvenile delinquency was due to the stunning decline
in the number of male juveniles referred to court (figure 2).
Between 1988 and 2002, juvenile court referrals for male law
violators plunged 64 percent, from 4,976 to 1,815.
Even when the numbers of juvenile arrests are
adjusted for population size, the dominant trend
in juvenile crime in the District of Columbia
between 1995 and 2003 has been downward.
5
FIGURE 1. Juvenile Arrest Rates in Washington, D.C.: 1995–2003
Sources: Arrest data are from the Metropolitan Police Department,Washington, D.C. Population data are from the National Center for Health Statistics "Bridge
Files" prepared from the U.S. Census, 1990 and 2000.
0
100
200
300
400
500
600
700
800
900
1,000
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
ALL OFFENSES
0
20
40
60
80
100
120
140
160
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
VIOLENT CRIME INDEX OFFENSES*
*Murder, Forcible Rape, Robbery, Aggravated Assault
0.0
0.5
1.0
1.5
2.0
2.5
3.0
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
MURDER
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
ROBBERY
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
AGGRAVATED ASSAULT
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
WEAPON OFFENSES
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
OTHER, NON-AGGRAVATED ASSAULTS
0
50
100
150
200
250
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
AUTO THEFT
0
20
40
60
80
100
120
140
160
180
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
DRUG OFFENSES
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995
Juvenile Arrests per 10,000 Youth Ages 10 –17
MISCELLANEOUS PROPERTY OFFENSES*
*Burglary, Larceny, Forgery, Fraud, Stolen Property, Vandalism
6
JUVENILE AND ADULT CRIME TRENDS ARE SIMILAR
Violent crime in Washington, D.C. is overwhelmingly an adult
problem. In July and August of 2003, police in Washington
reported making 503 arrests for violent crimes, including
murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault (table 3). Of
these, 462 arrests (or 92 percent) involved adult offenders over
the age of 18. Among the 24 arrests for murder during that
period, 23 (96 percent) were adults. Just one murder arrest
involved a juvenile offender.
The pattern of serious juvenile crime in the District has
generally followed adult crime trends, but on a much smaller
scale. Serious crimes by offenders of all ages (both juvenile
and adult) grew significantly in Washington during the late
1980s and early 1990s and then fell sharply during the mid-
to late 1990s (figure 3).
Between 1970 and 2002, the number of reported crimes
involving one of the FBI’s index offenses fluctuated considerably.
By 2000, the number of index crimes reported in the
District of Columbia (41,626) was lower than it had been at
any time since 1970. The previous low points were in 1976
and 1977 when the number of index crimes dipped below
50,000 for two years.
The recent drop in serious crime may have ended when the
number of reported index crimes began to grow between 2000
and 2001 and then climbed to nearly 46,000 in 2002. That
number, however, was still lower than any time in the past
three decades.When measured as a per capita rate, the total
number of index crimes in 2002 (8,022 crimes per 100,000)
was equivalent to the rate of 1985 (7,999 per 100,000).
TABLE 3. JUVENILE VS. ADULT ARRESTS
IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
Number of Arrests in
July and August of 2003
Juvenile Adult
Violent Offenses (under age 18) (18 and older)
Murder 1 23
Rape 1 3
Robbery 22 75
Aggravated Assault 17 361
Total 41 462
Source: Monthly Arrest Statistics, Metropolitan Police
Department, Washington, D.C.
FIGURE 2. Juvenile Delinquency Cases in Washington, D.C.
0
1,000
2,000
3,000
4,000
5,000
6,000
2002 2000 1998 1996 1994 1992 1990 1988 1986 1984 1982
Delinquency Cases Referred for Juvenile Court Disposition
JUVENILE DELINQUENCY REFERRALS
0
500
1,000
1,500
2,000
2,500
3,000
3,500
4,000
4,500
5,000
2002 2000 1998 1996 1994 1992 1990 1988 1986 1984
Delinquency Cases Referred for Juvenile Court Disposition
MALES
FEMALES
0
500
1,000
1,500
2,000
2,500
3,000
2002 2000 1998 1996 1994 1992 1990 1988 1986 1984 1982
Delinquency Cases Referred for Juvenile Court Disposition
ACTS AGAINST PUBLIC ORDER
ACTS AGAINST PERSONS
ACTS AGAINST PROPERTY
Source: Annual Report of the D.C. Courts, 1982 to 2002.Washington, D.C.
7
CONCLUSION
Crime statistics were very encouraging for much of the past
decade. Violent crime rates in particular fell to levels not seen
in a generation. Crime trends are cyclical, however, and the
latest crime data in Washington, D.C. show a slight increase
in the rate of violence. Still, the magnitude of the increase is
small compared to the steep decline that came before, and it
cannot be described yet as a trend.Moreover, the scale of
violent crime by juveniles is small compared with the amount
of crime committed by adults. Violent crime in Washington
is still largely an adult problem.
This analysis suggests that the tone of juvenile justice debate
in Washington, D.C. is overly narrow. Recent incidents of
youth violence in the city do not yet represent a significant
trend, and violence by adults is still far more pervasive and
more deadly. This does not seem to be the time to focus the
already strained resources of the justice system on inventing
new ways to crack down on juvenile violence. The juvenile
justice system should be learning more about what worked
during the last decade and why. The city needs to build and
maintain a solid foundation of programs that reduce all
forms of juvenile crime.
Finally, even if the recent growth in juvenile violence does
turn out to be the first indication of a new trend, it is difficult
to understand why policymakers believe the best response
to juvenile violence is to send more juvenile offenders to the
adult justice system. How could the adult system be an effective
solution to juvenile violence when juvenile and adult
violence have followed similar statistical trends? Are there
really no better ideas?
FIGURE 3. Serious Crime by Offenders of All Ages in
Washington, D.C.: 1970–2002
0
10,000
20,000
30,000
40,000
50,000
60,000
70,000
80,000
90,000
2000 1995 1990 1985 1980 1975 1970
Reported Crimes
INDEX CRIMES REPORTED
0
2,000
4,000
6,000
8,000
10,000
12,000
14,000
2000 1995 1990 1985 1980 1975 1970
Reported Crimes per 100,000 Residents
INDEX CRIMES PER CAPITA
0
2,000
4,000
6,000
8,000
10,000
12,000
14,000
16,000
18,000
2000 1995 1990 1985 1980 1975 1970
Reported Crimes
VIOLENT INDEX CRIMES REPORTED
0
500
1,000
1,500
2,000
2,500
3,000
3,500
2000 1995 1990 1985 1980 1975 1970
Reported Crimes per 100,000 Residents
VIOLENT INDEX CRIMES PER CAPITA
FBI Index Crimes include offenses in the Violent Crime Index
(murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery) and the Property Crime
Index (larceny-theft, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and arson).
Source: Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Uniform Crime
Reports. Figures for 1970–2001 were prepared by the National Archive of
Criminal Justice Data at the University of Michigan and distributed by the
Bureau of Justice Statistics (data online at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs).
Data for 2002 were obtained from Crime in the United States 2002, a
publication of the FBI.Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice
(http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius_02/pdf/2sectiontwo.pdf).
8
About the Author
Jeffrey A. Butts is director of the Program on Youth Justice
at the Urban Institute and a senior research associate in the
Institute’s Justice Policy Center.
Acknowledgments
A number of people were helpful during the preparation of
this brief. The author is grateful for the assistance of Megan
Schaffer of the Urban Institute who organized the juvenile
court data analyzed here. Urban Institute researchers Christy
Visher, Daniel Mears, and John Roman provided helpful criticisms
and advice on all aspects of the analysis. In addition, the
author thanks Anne Grant and Erin Lane of the Washington,
D.C.Metropolitan Police Department for providing him with
access to the Department’s juvenile arrest data.
Endnotes
1 Sewell Chan. 2003. “Shooting Highlights Crime Debate—Mayor Pushes
Tougher Rules on Trying Teens as Adults.” The Washington Post. November
9, 2003, p. C01.
2 Lonn Lanza-Kaduce, Charles E. Frazier, Jodi Lane, and Donna M. Bishop.
2002. Juvenile Transfer to Criminal Court Study: Final Report. Tallahassee, FL:
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Lawrence Winner, Lonn Lanza-Kaduce, Donna M. Bishop, and Charles E.
Frazier. 1997. “The Transfer of Juveniles to Criminal Court: Reexamining
Recidivism over the Long Term.” Crime and Delinquency 43:548–63.
3 National arrest figures are from an Urban Institute analysis of data from
the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Crime in the United States, Annual
series.Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
4 Arrests for 2003 were derived by averaging two different estimates. First,
arrests from the first 10 months of 2003 were simply multiplied by 1.2 to
represent 12 months. Second, to adjust for possible seasonality (arrests are
expected to be highest in the warm weather of the spring and summer
months), arrests in January and February of 2003 were used as a proxy for
arrests in November and December of 2003. These two estimates were then
averaged.
This policy brief was made possible by the Justice Policy
Center at the Urban Institute and its director, Terence
Dunworth. In collaboration with practitioners, public
officials, and community groups, the Urban Institute’s
Justice Policy Center carries out research to inform
the national dialogue on crime, justice, and community
safety.
The Urban Institute is a nonprofit nonpartisan policy
research and educational organization established to
examine the social, economic, and governance problems
facing the nation. It provides information and analysis to
public and private decisionmakers to help them address
these challenges and strives to raise citizen understanding
of the issues and tradeoffs in policymaking.
Any opinions expressed are those of the author and do
not necessarily reflect the views of the Urban Institute,
its board, or sponsors.
For more information, please visit http://www.urban.org and http://justice.urban.org


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