Adult Time for Adult Crime: The U.S. Has a Juvenile Crime Problem

Cully Stimson /

The U.S. Has a Juvenile Crime Problem
Underlying nearly every argument made by opponents of life without parole for juvenile offenders is the premise that, because many other countries have not authorized or have repealed the sentence, the United States should do the same so that it can be in conformance with the international “consensus” on the matter.

In fact, this premise is the cornerstone of the litigation strategy to extend the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments” to reach life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. This application of foreign sources of law to determine domestic law, in addition to being legally problematic, too often overlooks the qualitative differences between the United States and other countries.

This has certainly been the case in the debate over life without parole for juvenile offenders. The leading reports on the issue do not grapple seriously with the facts concerning juvenile crime and how those facts differ between nations. Instead, they play a crude counting game, tallying up nations while ignoring the realities of their circumstances and juvenile justice systems.

The Facts on Worldwide Crime and Sentencing
The fact is that the United States faces higher rates of crimes, particularly violent crimes and homicides, than nearly any other country. Adults and juveniles commit crimes in huge numbers, from misdemeanor thefts to premeditated murders. The root causes of this epidemic have been debated, studied, tested, and analyzed for decades, but the fact of its existence is neither controversial nor in doubt.

After a decade of gains in deterring juvenile crime, the trend has turned the other way in recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there was “substantial growth in juvenile violent crime arrests…in the late 1980s [which] peaked in 1994.” Between 1994 and 2004, the arrest rate for juveniles for violent crimes fell 49 percent, only to see a 2 percent uptick in 2005 and then a 4 percent gain in 2006. In 2005 and 2006, arrests of juveniles for murder and robbery also increased.

Despite the progress made through 2004, juvenile violent crime remains much higher in the United States than in other Western nations. Some statistics:

• In 1998 alone, 24,537,600 recorded crimes were committed in the United States.
• Of the 72 countries that reported recorded crimes to the United Nations Seventh Survey of Crime Trends, the United States ranked first in total recorded crimes.
• Worse still, the United States reported more crimes than the next six countries (Germany, England/Wales, France, South Africa, Russia, and Canada) combined. Their total was 23,111,318.
• Even more tellingly, the U.S. had a higher crime rate than all of those countries, except for England, which experienced disproportionate rates of property crimes but much lower rates of violent crimes.

In terms of violent crime rates, the U.S. ranks highly in every category, and the same is true in the realm of juvenile crime. For example:

• In 1998, teenagers in the United States were suspects in 1,609,303 crimes, and 1,000,279 juveniles were prosecuted.
• That is as many juvenile prosecutions as the next seven highest countries combined. Those countries are England/Wales, Thailand, Germany, China, Canada, Turkey, and South Korea.
• According to 2002 World Health Organization statistics, the United States ranks third in murders committed by youths and 14th in murders per capita committed by youths.
• In terms of rates, the United States is the only non-developing Western nation on the list until number 38 (New Zealand). Countries with similar youth murder rates include Panama, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Paraguay, Cuba, and Belarus. In terms of juvenile killers per capita, the United States is more like Colombia or Mexico than the United Kingdom, which ranks 52 on the list.

Given this domestic crime problem, it should come as no great surprise that the United States tops the lists of total prisoners and prisoners per capita. The U.S. incarceration rate bests that of the runner-up, Russia, by more than 20 percent.

Despite this high incarceration rate, convicted persons in the United States actually served less time in prison, on average, than the world average and the European average. Among the 35 countries surveyed on this question in 1998, the average time actually served in prison was 32.62 months. Europeans sentenced to prison served an average of 30.89 months. Those in the United States served an average of only 28 months.

These crucial statistics are not mentioned by those who urge abolition of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders. The reason may be that it undercuts their arguments: If the juvenile crime problem in the United States is not comparable to the juvenile crime problems of other Western nations, then combating it may justifiably require different, and stronger, techniques. The fact that some other nations no longer sentence juvenile offenders to life without parole loses a significant degree of its relevance. In addition, the data on sentence length demonstrate that the use of life-without-parole sentences is not a function of excessive sentence lengths in the United States, but rather an anomaly in a criminal justice system that generally imposes shorter sentences than those of other developed nations.

Charles D. Stimson is Senior Legal Fellow and Andrew M. Grossman is Senior Legal Policy Analyst in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.