Attack of the Yankee Superpredators!

The Atlantic pretends teen killings are a Vermont epidemic.

In the March Atlantic Monthly, Ron Powers attempts to turn Robert Tulloch and Jimmy Parker into a trend. Tulloch and Parker are the two teen-agers who were recently indicted for the murder of Half and Suzanne Zantrop, the two Dartmouth professors found stabbed to death last year in their home. Powers’ conceit is that Vermont, once a bucolic haven for gentle back-to-the-land communitarians, has become—booga booga!—a breeding ground for juvenile superpredators. (The article’s headline is “The Apocalypse of Adolescence.”) It’s a thesis nicely in tune with Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly’s conviction, oft-stated in his Washington Post column, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Nationally, Chatterbox will certainly agree that juvenile delinquency remains a significant social problem, and that greedy pop-culture merchants continue to deserve scolding for feeding American teen-agers too much sex, violence, and easy nihilism. But according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (click here and scroll to Table 3.4 on Page 222), arrests of persons age 18 and under actually declined by 15 percent between 1996 and 2000, and the subcategory of murder and manslaughter arrests declined much more sharply, by 55 percent. Can Vermont really be experiencing an increase in teen-age killings while the rest of the country is experiencing a decrease? Absolutely, argues Powers, though he telegraphs early on that his evidence is shaky:

In their unvexed small-town habitat, and in the apparent absence of any motivating passions, Robert Tulloch and Jimmy Parker may come to be seen as representatives of a new mutation in the evolution of the murderous American adolescent. In this mutation the murderers’ victims tend not to be the denizens of an urban war zone. Instead the victims are likely to be people living quietly in small towns or suburbs—unoffending partners in the social order.

The key phrase here is “may come to be seen as,” which blends two weaselly journalistic hedges, “may come to be” and “is/are seen as.” Individually, these formulations—one speculating about what may occur, the other speculating about perceptions that may be correct—can be hard even for exacting scribblers to forswear. But by blending the two, Powers commits serious hackery, rendering the succeeding clause and the two sentences that follow very nearly worthless. The alert reader will immediately crave statistics, and, after the distraction of four horrific anecdotes about other senseless killings by Vermont teen-agers over the past five years, Powers provides what he can:

That an explosion in serious juvenile crime has occurred in Vermont is undeniable. Data gathered by the Vermont Department of Corrections in 1999 revealed that the number of jail inmates aged sixteen to twenty-one had jumped by more than 77 percent in three years. (By that time overcrowding had obliged Vermont to start shipping some of its prisoners off to Virginia and other states.) Vermont’s Department of Corrections reported that it supervised or housed one in ten Vermont males of high school age. The annual DOC budget more than doubled during the 1990s, from $27 million to more than $70 million. A report by the northern New England consortium Justiceworks, released in 2000, asserted that “while overall crime rates are down in northern New England, a greater proportion of those crimes are being committed by children under the age of 18.”

The first statistic in this paragraph is the only one that speaks directly to the question of whether Vermont’s juvenile delinquency rate is on the rise. A 77 percent increase over three years certainly sounds impressive. It becomes less so once you remember that Vermont has an extremely small population with a low per-capita crime rate. The baseline prison-population numbers are so small to begin with that almost any change signals, percentage-wise, a dramatic “trend.” Indeed, Powers could just as easily have written an article titled “The Apocalypse of Old Age,” because Vermont’s Department of Corrections also has data that shows the number of prison inmates over the age of 50 more than tripled between 1989 and 1999. (Click here and scroll to Page 154.) In 1989, there were 38. In 1999, there were 123. Five years from now, when it drops down to 52, the Atlantic can marvel at the abrupt end to Vermont’s geriatric crime wave.

[Update, Feb. 22: Chatterbox has now spoken to John Perry, director of planning for the Vermont Department of Corrections. The number of Vermont jail inmates aged 16 to 21 (average annual population) actually rose 97 percent between 1996 and 1999, not 77 percent, as Powers reported. Moreover, that number continued to rise through 2001, the last year for which data are available. But the raw numbers are, as Chatterbox emphasizes above, quite low: 105 in 1996, and 266 in 2001. An increase of 161 teen-age jail inmates over five years is not significant enough to warrant a panicky write-up in a national magazine.]