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Teenagers And Crime

June 2022
6min read

From Puritan New England to Littleton in 1999, youth violence has been a fact of American life and a frequent national preoccupation

They are armed. They are dangerous. They are our children.

These sentiments sound chillingly up-to-date, as current as the latest suburban high school massacre or big-city gang killing. In fact, youth crime —and especially adult fear of youth crime—has been a perennial American concern. An apprentice rapes his master’s ten-year-old daughter in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. A son shoots his father and mother with a rifle on the Kentucky frontier. Street gangs terrorize neighborhoods in nineteenth-century New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. Indeed, though the word teenager is about sixty years old, and adolescent has been used in its current sense for about ninety-five years, Americans have been speaking of and fretting about “juvenile delinquents” for nearly two centuries.

Throughout our history young Americans have shocked their elders by the callousness and brutality of their crimes and prompted worries that violence is an outgrowth of our national character. “Their crimes have the unrestrained and sanguinary character of a race accustomed to overcoming all obstacles,” wrote the social reformer Charles Loring Brace in his celebrated 1872 book The Dangerous Classes of New York . “They rifle a bank, where English thieves pick a pocket; they murder where European prolétaires cudgel or fight with fists. … The murder of an unoffending old man is nothing to them.”

Young people’s bloody deeds seem perpetually unprecedented. “Younger and younger children commit more and more serious and violent acts,” wrote Dr. Fredric Wertham in his sensational 1953 bestseller The Seduction of the Innocent . “Even psychotic children did not act like this fifteen years ago.” Wertham blamed gory, sadistic comic books. Among the criminals he cited was a fourteen-year-old who in 1950 fired a rifle from the window of a New York apartment house, shooting to death a man watching the Giants play baseball at the Polo Grounds. Such acts of apparently random violence often have a strong impact on public opinion, touching off, as they did in the 1950s, panic over juvenile crime.

In fact, the Post-World War II era was a time of declining youth crime. The same is true of the 1990s, another period in which teenage violence has been an important public issue. Statistics never galvanize attention as powerfully as do two or three horrible incidents. There are, unfortunately, always plenty of these. What seems to vary is the amount of attention Americans choose to pay. So one must track two separate histories. One concerns crimes committed by young people; the other deals with popular concern over juvenile crime.

While the first of these seems to rest on a solid factual ground, different definitions of crime and of youth and changing standards of enforcement make long-term comparisons difficult. For example, most nineteenth-century records deal with urban crime. Street gangs, such as New York City’s notorious Dead Rabbits and Plug Uglies, sprang up in most major cities during the second third of the nineteenth century. Like today’s youth gangs, they had members who ranged in age from the barely pubescent to men in their mid-twenties, with the majority in their teens. (In Philadelphia, some volunteer fire brigades were in effect youth gangs, and they sometimes set fire to buildings that their rivals had contracted to protect.) Gangs were so closely associated with massive immigration and explosive urbanization that the most popular solution was to get their members off the streets by sending those who didn’t yet appear to be hardened criminals out of the cities to what was assumed to be the purifying atmosphere of the countryside or wilderness.

Although such banishment cut down on urban crime, the country wasn’t exactly peaceful either. While the urban gangs fought with rocks and clubs and knives, young people on the frontier were armed from an early age. There are no good records on the subject, but personal memoirs of life in the West recount an enormous amount of casual, gun-related mayhem.

One such account, by Miguel Angel Otero, who became territorial governor of New Mexico, is a sentimental, nostalgic recollection of youth in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico during the 1870s, but with a formidable body count. Many of Otero’s young friends were killed or injured in gunfights, hunting accidents, range wars, battles with Indians, and even suicides. This youthful carnage has not been counted as or considered part of the problem of juvenile delinquency but rather is seen as part of the general lawlessness of the frontier, where young people had little choice but to grow up quickly.

In America, as nearly everywhere, the overwhelming majority of violent crimes are committed by young men from about fifteen to thirty years of age. This is the period during which males reach physical and sexual maturity. They feel confident. They take risks. They are also susceptible to being influenced by others. (Not coincidentally this is the age group from which soldiers have traditionally been drawn.)

If adolescence is a conspiracy by culture to deny the evidence of physical and sexual maturity, crime is one of the few ways available for young people to assert the power they feel. While young criminals use up-to-date technologies such as automatic weapons and computers, crime remains one of the few pursuits that operate on the pre-industrial idea that you’re grown up when your body is.

Thus crime rises when the number of people in the prime criminal age group rises. It happened in the 1960s, when the baby boomers became old enough to commit crimes, and it will very likely happen during the next decade or more as the number of Americans in their teens and twenties surges.

The second history, that of American parents frightened of their unruly young, began early. Few laws have been tougher on youth crime than this 1656 New Haven-colony statute: “If any man have a stubborn, rebellious son, of sufficient age and understanding, namely sixteen years and upward, which will not obey the voyce of his father, or the voyce of his mother; and that when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them, then shall his father and his mother (being his natural parents) lay hold on him, and bring him to the magistrates assembled in court, and testifie unto them that their son is stubborn and rebellious, and will not obey their voyce and chastisement, but lives in sundry notorious crimes; such a son shall be put to death.”

We don’t know of any crime wave along Long Island Sound in the mid-seventeenth century, and in fact this law seems not to have led to any executions. Nevertheless, its passage shows that these Puritan pioneers were extremely anxious about the behavior of their sons.

This early document in the history of Americans’ fear of young people’s transgressions is revealing. It defines the problem not in terms of any specific crime but rather in the fear that young men will fail to respect their parents’ authority from the time they are physically mature to the time they will be legally emancipated and able to keep the money they earn, at twenty-one.

It is tempting to see this law, passed eighteen years after the colony was founded, as a reflection of parents’ fears that growing up in the New World was producing a new, uncontrollable kind of person. A century later observers such as Benjamin Franklin took it for granted that American young people were less patient and more impetuous than their European counterparts. Franklin himself was what we would now call a teenage runaway, a fugitive apprentice who ran far enough to be free of his obligations to a master who was also his older brother.

American youths seemed to be naturally rebellious because they had so many possibilities and so little need to depend on their families. In 1776, a time when half the colonial population was under twenty, Thomas Paine compared England to a parent who wasn’t able to acknowledge that its child was fully grown. For two generations after the revolution, young people celebrated the Fourth of July by getting drunk and shooting off guns and explosives, a display of patriotism that often led to serious injuries.

Concern about “juvenile delinquency” began in the 1820s, about the same time the first high schools opened. The social reformers who founded the earliest houses of refuge and reformatories believed that the character of young people up to age sixteen or so was still malleable. Rather than send the young to prisons, where they would learn to be criminals, they sought to separate them and inculcate the values they would receive in a sound, middle-class Protestant home. The leaders of what became known as the child-saving movement saw youthful rebellion against parents as both a problem and an opportunity. Defiant young people threatened the social order, but placed in special institutions and schools, they could be perfected into better Americans. This issue became particularly urgent with the explosive immigration that began in the 1840s.

The American-born children of immigrants were soon being identified as the most dangerous of the dangerous classes because, the argument went, they had jettisoned many of the social and moral values their parents had brought from the old country while not adopting the distinctive American Protestant mores that still dominated the culture. These first-generation Americans were said to dominate the emerging city youth gangs, stealing goods off piers and filling the streets with prostitutes. Immigrant children were often forced into activities that led to crime, as when their destitute parents sent them out to scavenge for wood, coal, and other useful items. There was a fine line between such foraging and outright thievery, and other people’s children are perennially scarier than one’s own. Many of the most prominent youth gangs were made up of immigrants’ children, but others had members of English-American ancestry who also lived in poor neighborhoods.

Immigrant parents, shocked by their children’s behavior, sometimes committed their own young to institutions for juvenile delinquents, little realizing that those who wanted to reform the children saw the parents as the biggest problem. They viewed their houses of refuge as an opportunity to free the young from their parents’ drunkenness, irresponsibility, and disorder and from the superstitious influence of priests and other immigrant-community leaders. Reformatories took on the molding of good citizens long before that task was assumed by high schools.

Social reformers hoped these institutions would reproduce some of the values of the newly emergent middle-class family, in which domestic life was separated from work, children were presumed innocent, and the mother would be at home as the chief moral teacher. This paradigm has survived to the present, even though now, as in 1850, only a minority of families truly achieve it.

It has become the centerpiece of our common vision of a proper, wholesome life, and we still believe so fully in its efficacy that despite our national traditions of violence and rebelliousness, when a young person emerges from such a home to do something atrocious, we believe his deed should have been absolutely impossible.

—T.H.

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