Fact check: Juvenile crime

“13 year-old threatens 12 year-old,” “youths run wild, verbally abuse passers-by,” “17 year-old hurls bottle at police” - We are confronted almost daily with headlines like these which seem to suggest that young people are becoming progressively more violent. It is true that young people commit more crimes than adults. However, despite being widely perceived as a threat, today’s teenagers are more law-abiding than previous generations. It is therefore worth looking at the facts and figures behind the headlines.

Young people commit crimes more frequently than adults. On the other hand, in recent years the number has declined substantially.

“13 year-old threatens 12 year-old,” “youths run wild, verbally abuse passers-by,” “17 year-old hurls bottle at police” - We are confronted almost daily with headlines like these which seem to suggest that young people are becoming progressively more violent. It is true that young people commit more crimes than adults. However, despite being widely perceived as a threat, today’s teenagers are more law-abiding than previous generations. It is therefore worth looking at the facts and figures behind the headlines.

How criminal are young people?

Juvenile crime is a widespread phenomenon, given that young people are more active than adults and many of them between the ages of 12 and 17 feel under pressure to push their boundaries. In a nationwide survey of German year nine school students in 2007/2008, 44 percent of male and 24 percent of female respondents claimed to have broken the law in the past 12 months. However, serious crimes were rare, with the majority citing offenses such as shoplifting, vandalism or selling pirated material. Still, there are some offenders, predominantly young males, who are frequently violent and do not shrink from even serious acts of violence.

Is violence increasing?

No, on the contrary, between 2006 and 2015 in Germany the number of young people suspected of committing a crime declined by 40 percent - and not just as a result of demographic change. In the same period the ratio of criminal suspects per 100,000 members of the population in the same age group fell by almost a third. A similar trend is evident internationally, with juvenile crime also declining substantially in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

A current study has revealed several possible causes which can be observed internationally and which may be responsible: First of all, there is the change in leisure habits brought about by smartphones and online games. If instead of meeting up with others of their own age and walking the streets, young people spend their time sitting in front of a monitor or touchscreen it is likely that they will commit fewer crimes.

Other factors identified in the study are a greater satisfaction with their own situation, a lower acceptance of criminality, lower alcohol consumption and stronger security measures than in the past to protect against shoplifting and car theft. Which factors are actually decisive in this development, however, is not something that can be unambiguously proven.

Does the data match the reality?

The grey area of crimes that go unreported and unregistered is a fundamental statistical problem. In the case of some crimes, the trend is hard to determine, because it is unclear whether there are more crimes being committed, or whether there are simply more being reported. In the field of juvenile crime, in the 1990s the number of reported crimes of violence rose sharply. However, school student surveys – the best means of shedding light on the issue – revealed that young people did not become more violent during this period. Instead it became apparent that young people were less tolerant of violence and consequently more willing to report such acts to the police. 

By contrast, the development over the past ten years, in which juvenile crime has fallen substantially, is likely to correspond with reality. For one thing, the willingness to report crimes remains high. On the other, the parallel development in more than one country indicates that this is a general trend.

Are young people from immigrant families more prone to violence?

We know from past phases of immigration that the first generation of immigrants does not draw attention to themselves in their host country through acts of violence. Criminality tends to become a problem with the second and third generations. Surveys and studies in other European countries have shown young people with an immigrant background to be at greater risk of becoming violent than their indigenous counterparts. This applies to young people of all major origin groups and is not dependent on specific ethnic backgrounds or religious affinities. On the other hand, if one takes into account additional risk factors such as poor education, personal experience of violence or dependence on state welfare benefits, where violence is concerned there is no significant difference between German and non-German families.

Overall, the number of crimes of violence committed by young people with an immigrant background has also declined substantially. As studies conducted in Hanover and Duisburg – cities with large immigrant populations – have shown, if young immigrants are given the same educational opportunities as young Germans, the differences in violence also decline.

Is juvenile crime the starting point for a criminal career?

Even if large numbers of young people break the law, they generally outgrow this behaviour automatically. The peak is normally reached at the age of 14 or 15, after which the tendency to breach legal boundaries declines sharply. This applies even to prolific and serial offenders, young people who often commit crimes or are very violent. A long-term survey of school students in Duisburg has shown that among 14 and 15 year-olds, around six percent can be classed as highly criminal. Among the 20 year-olds, just 1.5 percent were serial offenders.

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