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In the wake of the tragic shootings at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. last month, many people have asked why juvenile crime seems to increase without end. While the search for answers to the thorny problem of juvenile violence in America and the District of Columbia is a worthwhile one, it would be wrong to conclude that D.C. kids are becoming more violent. Although it might be hard to believe, youth crime in our nation’s capital actually dropped significantly during the 1990s. This trend says a lot more about what has gone right than what has gone wrong in the District, and offers some important lessons about how the city can become an even safer place. Homicides by youths have been falling sharply in Washington, as they have been throughout the country. Despite a recent poll showing that two-thirds of Americans believe that juvenile crime is increasing, there has been a 56 percent decline in juvenile homicides since 1993. According to data from the Metropolitan Police Department and the FBI, juvenile homicide arrests in the District have dropped by two-thirds since 1990, from 69 in 1990 to 23 in 1998. Between 1993 and 1998, juvenile arrests for aggravated assault declined by 45 percent and youth arrests for armed robbery and attempted armed robbery fell by 48 percent. In all, violent youth crime arrests dropped by 38 percent since 1993, and there have been similar declines in arrests for nonviolent youth offenses. The April 24 tragedy at the zoo notwithstanding, youth violence is not the epidemic it was even six years ago, when Washington earned the dubious title of America’s “murder capital.” There are several factors and homegrown solutions that have contributed to the good news about D.C. juvenile crime. First, there have been local improvements in job creation, employment, and wages. Though the city’s jobless rate is still higher than the national average, unemployment in the District dropped from 8.6 percent in 1993 to 5.9 percent today. This means that nearly a third fewer people are unemployed today than in 1993. Coupled with increases in the minimum wage, the financial picture for the District’s teen-agers and their families has improved considerably, although they still have a long way to go to achieve parity with the rest of the country. It’s not surprising that these brighter financial prospects for D.C. families would be accompanied by substantial drops in youth crime. FEWER GUNS, FEWER KILLINGS Second, the decline in juvenile homicides in the District was helped along when Maryland and Virginia enacted “one-gun-a-month” laws. The District prohibits the private ownership and use of handguns, but this ban has been frustrated by a flood of firearms from its neighbors. A study in the early 1990s found that when Virginia still allowed multiple gun sales, guns bought in the Old Dominion made up the majority of the traceable guns seized in crimes occurring in New York City, Boston, and the District. Prompted by this research, Virginia lawmakers passed a law that limited purchases of guns to one a month in 1995, effectively choking off the black market for Virginia guns. The black market is a major source of guns for juveniles, who are prohibited from making legal gun- store purchases. Since Virginia passed its one-gun-a-month law, Boston, New York, and Washington have experienced substantial drops in gun killings. A year after the Virginia law was passed, Maryland, which still allowed multiple gun sales, supplanted Virginia as the No. 1 supplier of guns seized in the District. After a stormy battle with the National Rifle Association, Maryland passed its own one-gun-a-month law in 1997. In the following 12 months, the number of Maryland guns seized in Washington dropped from 20 to zero. And youth homicide rates in the District have been dropping ever since. Finally, some might find it ironic that the 67 percent decline in juvenile homicide arrests has occurred at a time when the District was actually imprisoning fewer youthful offenders. During the 1990s, the D.C. juvenile justice system took a rational approach toward youth crime that has reaped some impressive benefits. In 1990, the city locked up 450 youths, mostly for nonviolent offenses, in three juvenile institutions that were the shame of our community. One was closed by Congress in 1993; another was shut down in 1996 by a judge who was appalled by the facility’s scandalous conditions. As a result, the number of kids locked up in the District fell by nearly 80 percent, down to about 95 youths incarcerated today. What grew out of that crisis was the uniting of some unusual forces in the government and community in the District, many of which had been across the table as litigants. Public defenders, prosecutors, juvenile justice staff, court personnel, and service providers worked together throughout the 1990s to develop a continuum of care for youths in trouble with the law. To be sure, some of the more violent and recalcitrant of those youths still face incarceration. But for those less violent and less sophisticated, the District funded a series of no-nonsense, rehabilitative programs that work with delinquent youths in their own neighborhoods. By diverting more kids from imprisonment into rehabilitation, the District seems to have actually reduced the likelihood that our young people will “graduate” to more violent behavior. IMPRESSIVE RESULTS The results have been impressive. In a 1997 analysis of the District’s new youth programs by the American Correctional Association (the trade association for prison wardens and correctional administrators), the programs were shown to have better than 80 percent success rates, whereas just one-third of juvenile offenders in most states manage to avoid rearrest. There is no bromide, no sound-bite, no three-minute evening news segment that can address the complex factors that contribute to violent crime in America, that have made our country, and our nation’s capital, one of the most violent places in the First World. There is also nothing that can be done to undo the damage to the innocent young people who were shot at the National Zoo. But in the case of the District of Columbia, sensible gun control, a better economy, and a smarter juvenile justice system have resulted in some significant gains in the struggle to reduce violence, a struggle that is clearly far from over. So before the national press corps airs one more story lamenting the demise of the District of Columbia, it should look more closely at the facts about D.C. youth crime. Maybe other cities and states might actually learn something from the District, which has reduced crime more rapidly and treated young people more decently than just about any other place in the country. Vincent Schiraldi and Jason Ziedenberg work for the Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

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