OP-ED: The Teenage Brain, New Science or the Same Old Prejudice?

Mike Males
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“As any parent knows,“ youths display “immature and irresponsible behavior… adolescent brains are not yet fully mature in regions and systems related to higher-order executive functions such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk avoidance.” Those phrases are the most eagerly quoted of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roper v. Simmons and Miller v. Alabama decisions on juvenile life/death sentencing.

We “know” teenagers act stupidly… compared to some ideal standard. But compared to us? Grownups’ boasting aside, does scientific evidence — brain research, cognitive studies, psychometric testing, statistics — show we act any better?

Hardly. Grownups in this country are stunningly reckless. High rates of drug overdose, gun violence, suicide, family abuses, family breakup, and 3 million criminal arrests per year among Americans ages 40-59 evidence serious “middle-aged risk taking.” The aging brain’s deteriorated memory, learning and cognitive functioning is a worrisome “developmental issue.”

But we don’t talk about that “brain research,” or the primitive state of the science. “People naturally want to use brain science to inform policy and practice, but our limited knowledge of the brain places extreme limits on that effort,” warned Kurt Fischer director of the Mind, Brain, & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

We are just beginning to identify how systems in the brain work together in an integrated fashion to create complex mental processes,” agreed UCLA's Center for Culture, Brain, and Development director Daniel Siegel. Researchers “couldn’t really find any link between brain development and adolescent risk-taking,” declared a lead author in Scientific American; interestingly, more adult-like brains predicted riskier behavior.

Small-scale Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagings shows that under some (but not all) conditions, adolescents process new information somewhat more through the amygdala, while adults use the pre-frontal cortex more. These findings are viewed cautiously by research scientists, who acknowledge that these remain poorly understood brain regions.

What today’s best evidence shows, educator Howard Sercombe and neuroscientist Tomas Paus’ stricter investigations of brain functionalities across the lifespan report, is not risk versus prudence or stupidity versus maturity, but flexibility versus specialization. The young brain’s abundance of open neuropathways facilitates greater adaptability to changing conditions; older adults’ pruned pathways promote more efficient responses to narrower situations. Both are complex products of individuality and environment.

But scientific uncertainties and complexities be damned. Irresponsible interest groups, commentators, and popular media deploy selective, often inconsistent, caricatures of “brain research” to push their agendas. For progressives, “teen brain” arguments have proven most useful for winning leniency for the few youths who commit heinous violence while arbitrarily punishing and restricting millions who don’t.

But would liberals who cheered the U.S. Supreme Court’s citation of teenage brainlessness in juvenile sentencing decisions want the same logic applied to upholding stop-and-frisk laws and contraception bans? Would middle-agers accept “deteriorated-aging-brain” stigmas and severely curtailed rights for ourselves to spare a few 50-aged murderers?

The Supreme Court’s dubious bio-developmental quips obscured its far more important findings regarding the systemic abrogation of rights juveniles suffer. Laws afford juveniles only “limited control over their own environment” and “ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings,” justices noted. Courts routinely deny juvenile defendants basic rights. When imposing ultimate sentences, states cannot arbitrarily restrict youths like children when convenient, then hold youths responsible like adults when convenient.

The popular stampede to embrace “teenage brain” dogmas has been extraordinarily heedless of the dismal history of biodeterminist and phrenological non-science. Professional, academic, and political authorities of the past universally agreed that compared to white, Anglo-Saxon men, “inferior” races and nationalities were naturally violent, impulsive, unreasoning, and criminal (exactly the disparagements now hurled at teenagers). Scientific imperatives to rule out external conditions before championing internal biologies were dismissed — then, as now.

Just like racial out-groups, teenagers as an age and within every race and locality suffer poverty levels twice as high as middle-agers. Our initial studies at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, described in a previous column, found that what we call “adolescent risk taking” and “teenage crime proneness” are not features of youthful brains or development; they result from adolescents’ lower socioeconomic status.

Ultimately, those concerned with youths’ well-being should consider the overarching rule: however expedient playing the biology card might seem in immediate cases, the larger, long-term reality is that this nation punishes “inferiors.” Liberals claim to “protect” teenagers, yet their policies contribute to harsher policing, arrest and incarcerations imposed on youths than adults suffer for equivalent behaviors. There is no “ideal brain.” Like adults, youths benefit from individualized, not prejudiced, justice.

OP-ED: Are Teenage Crime Proneness and Adolescent Risk Taking Obsolete Myths?

Mike Males
Mike Males

We’ve long heard the theory, from Criminology 101 to the U.S. Supreme Court: teenagers are crime prone (even “deadly”), biologically and developmentally impulsive, peer-driven risk takers, heedless of consequences.

The statistics would seem unassailable: in every culture, ages 15-24 or so have higher crime rates than those 25 and older. Of course, authorities once held that excessive crime by African Americans was an innate feature of primitive racial biology and undeveloped culture.

Unchastened by history, modern theorists have failed to investigate whether “adolescent risks” are explained not by bio-developmental internalities, but by straightforward externalities. Poverty is linked to many high-risk behaviors, and adolescents and young adults are much poorer than older adults.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice initiated studies investigating this policy-laden question, a tough one since the economic status of offenders must be estimated from the age, race, and geography associated with outcome statistics — a consistent, comprehensive data base but with some methodological challenges. The results of our macro-level analyses of risk outcomes for ages 14-69 were consistent and compelling.

With regard to violent crime, for example, we found that two-thirds of 14-19 year-olds live in areas where youths’ poverty rates top 15 percent, and these areas account for a staggering 86 percent of teens’ arrests. In contrast, just 11 percent of 40-69 year-olds live in areas where middle-aged poverty rivals typical teenaged rates, but they account for 25 percent of middle-aged arrests.

Conversely, just 19 percent of teenagers reside in areas where teen poverty rates average less than 10 percent, but these accounted for just 7 percent of teenagers’ arrests. However, 66 percent of 40-69 year-olds live in areas where middle-agers have poverty rates below 10 percent, accounting for fewer than half of middle-aged arrests.

We found that where teens enjoy low “middle-aged” affluence levels, teens display low “middle-aged” crime, violence, gun homicide, and traffic fatality rates. Where middle-agers suffer high, “teenaged” poverty rates, middle-agers have high crime, violence, gun homicide, and fatal traffic crash rates.

The only difference between teen and middle age with regard to criminal and other risk propensities is that far fewer middle-agers than teens live in high-poverty environments. Teenagers, like Latinos and Louisianans, suffer certain risks because they’re poorer, not because they’re young. We replicated these findings using various years, locales, and outcomes with strengthened results over time.

Our findings were rejected by traditionalists. Three noted authors responded, arguing the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth’s (NLSY) self-reported offending from Wave 1 (1996) to Wave 7 (2003) showed crime peaking around age 15 and declining thereafter, even when self-reported poverty status was held constant.

But this analysis was invalid on its face. The NLSY is limited to a single, outdated cohort (those born in 1980-1984) and contains crippling flaws and inconsistencies. For one, overall crime declined sharply from 1996 to 2003; individuals would report much lower crime rates in 2003 than in 1996 regardless of age or aging. Further, subject attrition in later waves cost Wave 7 a large share of its highest-risk respondents, rendering it incomparable to Wave 1.

For another flaw, socioeconomic status was reported inconsistently by parents for their families (Wave 1), then by young people for their households (Wave 7). For a third, the study’s limited ages, 10-24, enhanced the “college effect” (students often suffer high, temporary poverty along with low crime rates). Yet, its authors posed this lone study confined to 10-24 year-olds employing a messed-up data base as definitive proof that “the age-crime curve in adolescence and early adulthood is not due to age differences in economic status” and constituted a “strong refutation” to our studies of risks spanning ages 15-69.

That teenage crime and poverty are inextricably related has profound implications for policy. We need fewer age-based remediations and more measures to improve youths’ economic status and college access.

American political, medical, and academic establishments took decades to abandon prejudices that people of color are biologically inclined to steal watermelons, Mexicans are innately “hot blooded,” and Native Americans are genetic savages. Likewise, giving up expedient “teenage brain” phrenologies and developmental biases is imperative to refocusing and modernizing juvenile justice.

Defendant age may be legally relevant for other reasons. The United States affords teenagers fewer rights than do other Western nations. Youths denied the adult right to control their environments should not be held as responsible as adults for crime fostered by those environments—an issue that should be drawing far more attention than resurrected 19th century bio-determinism.

OP-ED: Pretending to “Care About Kids”—But Really Caring About Pot

MikeMales“Our children” are routinely trotted out (sometimes with sincerity) as public relations tools to sell various agendas politicians and interest groups push. Nothing brings out transparent exploitation like drugs. The semi-legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington spawned moralizing by both sides so cynical it bordered on callous.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo listed the administration’s first concern as the prevention of marijuana’s availability and appeal to youth. What charlatanism. An administration truly concerned about drug policies’ effects on youths would be urgently reassessing its own War on Drugs.

The Drug War’s mass arrest and imprisonment regime has been accompanied by unprecedented explosions in drug abuse, violence, and crime—the predictable result of the National Drug Control Strategy’s emphasis on punishing users while neglecting addiction. Illicit-drug abuse deaths now top 40,000 per year, led by middle-agers (2,000 among ages 40-64 in 1980; 21,500 in 2010). Teens show fewer but also increased drug fatalities (250 in 1980, 900 in 2010).

The official response to the rising tens of thousands of dead parents, grownups, and youths under their failed policies? Mainly, another frivolously dishonest campaign by the White House, Partnership at, and obsequious reporters to blame kids stealing medications for an opiate-death epidemic the Centers for Disease Control admits is inconveniently centered in white middle-agers.

Rhetoric by marijuana legalization advocates also has been bizarrely exploitative. The NAACP’s Benjamin Jealous recited a common myth concocted by legalizers: if marijuana is regulated “like beer,” teens will find marijuana “harder to get.”

That’s both immaterial and false. Surveys for 40 years consistently show teens find legal drugs easier to get and actually use than illicit drugs. The 2013 Monitoring the Future survey is typical: 39% of 8th graders find marijuana “easy or very easy to get,” compared to 56% for alcohol; nearly twice as many drink alcohol as smoke pot.

American alcohol regulation is a deadly disaster, not a model. Federal fatality data show that every year, drunken, over-21 adults kill 800 teenagers and children and injure 80,000 more in a quarter-million traffic crashes. Adults’ drinking is the fifth leading cause of death to teens.

Perpetuating America’s tradition of leniency toward privileged groups and their drugs, Washington’s initiative allows adults to drive with marijuana levels more than twice the recognized safety limit. Washington’s first year of legalization brought increased marijuana-related traffic crashes, led by a 48-year-old driver who admitted to “smoking a bowl” before killing a pedestrian.

Both sides, deploying expedient non-science, ignore and rationalize adult excesses while dispensing useless propaganda haranguing teens to abstain. Strangely, they omit the best strategy: adults (especially parents) pushing teenage abstinence should abstain from drinking and drugs themselves, which sharply reduces the odds of their teens indulging. We grownups don’t care that much.

Meanwhile, draconian underage drinking laws arrest 300,000 teens every year. Marijuana legalizers rightly lament the harsh effects marijuana arrests inflict on young people. Then, their “reforms” continue to harshly criminalize marijuana use by those under 21, half of all marijuana possession arrestees. If marijuana is legalized for adults like alcohol, one in four total arrests of Americans under age 21 will be simply for possessing otherwise legal substances.

American drug policy largely consists of cyclical crusades demonizing whatever out-group—Chinese, Catholic immigrants, Mexicans, urban minorities, gay men, African Americans, teenagers—is most feared and safest to attack at any moment. Children and teens have always been pawns to subsidize drug-war interests on one side and adult partying on the other. The young are being forced to pay an unacceptable price for grownups’ selfish indulgences.

Decades of planned failure underlie Americans’ singular inability to handle drugs whatever their status—legal (alcohol), semi-legal (pharmaceuticals), or illegal (street drugs). World Health Organization tabulations indicate Americans’ rate of drug and alcohol overdose fatality is six times higher than other Western nations’. Our drug crises create global perils.

Obscured by all the bad policy schemes is California’s distinctly constructive 2011 reform reducing marijuana use by all ages to a rarely enforced infraction. Did teens afforded de facto legal marijuana go crazy? Hardly. Crime, hard drug arrests, school dropout rates, and related ills plunged to record lows among California youth in 2011 and 2012.

America can build on California’s success. Drug policy should focus on promoting responsibility toward alcohol and marijuana for adults and teenagers alike, not criminalizing mere use. That’s how to “care about children.”


OP-ED: Why Don’t Youth Curfews Work?

MikeMalesForget constitutional rights or fairness; doesn’t it seem logical that a curfew requiring police to remove an entire group of people from public spaces for hours would at least reduce public crimes and safety risks involving that group?

Well, it doesn’t. Research consistently “fails to support the argument that curfews reduce crime or criminal victimization,” a 2003 review of multiple studies found. Monrovia, California’s widely acclaimed youth curfew famously celebrated by then-President Bill Clinton was indeed followed by a decline in crime — one that was much larger during non-curfew hours than during curfew hours. Vernon, Connecticut’s youth curfew was followed by increases in crime, particularly youthful offending, while nearby cities without curfews enjoyed decreases.

Studies of dozens of cities across the nation found no effect or bad effects following youth curfews. An 18-year analysis of 21 cities in California found youth curfews useless or worse. San Jose’s and Chicago’s periods of vigorous curfew enforcement coincided with persistent failure to reduce crime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while curfew-free cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, New Haven and New York City had impressive crime declines. Even a study purporting to validate curfews — which failed to compare cities with and without them — inadvertently found criminal arrests of youth fell faster across the country in general than in cities that enforced curfews.

Understanding why curfews fail requires radically revising our entire view of young people perpetrated by law enforcement, interest groups, politicians, and the news media from Fox News on the right to The Nation on the left.

Imagine instead — however impossibly, given the drumbeat of fear — that teenagers in this country are not a mass of risk-happy thugs, gunners, rapists and bullies. Imagine that police bent on curfew enforcement could stop hundreds of teenagers late at night and find virtually no wrongdoing — just park basketball players, movie-going throngs, restaurant socializers; that is, young people enjoying their communities.

 CJCJ’s journal analysis of 400 police citations found just that: Curfews function as remarkably effective tools to waste law enforcement resources removing law-abiding youths from public places, where youthful presence serves to deter crime. Urban scholarship from William H. Whyte and Jane Jacobs to common knowledge in European and Latin American cities validate that the more folks on the streets, young or old, the safer the public space. A Toronto Mountie once laughed when I asked if the city had a youth curfew: “Maybe for six year-olds.”

Every curfew CJCJ has researched overwhelmingly targets African and Latino American youth. Americans in many communities not only routinely criminalize youth merely for venturing into public places during arbitrarily forbidden hours, but delight in venting hostility against the young. Youth Today’s survey of officials in communities then campaigning for curfews found they cared nothing for research or reason; sweeping kids off the streets made them feel satisfied and safer.

That’s why curfews emerge in suburban and gentrifying neighborhoods in which youth of color are annoyingly visible to adult patrons courted by business and realtors, such as Pasadena’s Old Town, Oklahoma City’s Bricktown, Minneapolis’ Mall of America, or San Jose’s First Street.

Youth curfews are demanded after a sensational incident — often not even caused by youths — such as the murder of a teenage girl who Oakland Police branded as an “at-risk 16-year-old” to blame for being shot because she was in public at night (not the 36-year-old man who shot her). Or to gloss over bad conditions officials have failed to redress, such as Baltimore’s campaign to curfew kids playing street football during evenings in poorer neighborhoods devoid of parks and recreation facilities. Or to invoke sentimental odes to “protecting children” by forcing them to stay home — where 4,000 domestic violence incidents are reported to Oakland law enforcement every year, and where one-third of Baltimore’s murders occur.

In California, Oakland’s latest curfew foolishness is a novice council member’s proposal to “help young people” by banning youths under age 18 from being in public later than 10 p.m. unless accompanied by someone 21 or older. So, a group of 15-year-olds coming out of a movie get arrested, while a 15-year-old prostitute with her 40-year-old pimp is legal?

Mass curfews — elsewhere enforced only by repressive dictatorships and countries suffering temporary civil emergencies — are the Land of the Free’s go-to panacea for officials substituting anti-youth homilies for serious policy innovation. As well as evidence of the Home of the Brave’s shameful fear of its young people.

Safer, inclusive communities welcome more teenagers in public, a reality reflected in the fact that police quickly tire of the hassles and antagonisms curfews entail. In California, curfew enforcement rates have plummeted by nearly 80 percent  over the last 15 years to a record low level, and today’s relatively uncurfewed youth display the lowest rates of nearly every type of major and lesser crime ever reliably recorded. In short, community leaders who adopt a curfew are admitting there’s something radically wrong with their leadership, not young people.

OP-ED: The Gun Debate, Round 2: Let’s Learn From Young People, Not Demonize Them

Mike MalesWhile investigating the “age-crime curve” literature, we discovered a crucial omission: decades of research associating adolescent age with more crime had failed to include the fact that adolescents and young adults — as a group and within every race and locale — suffer poverty rates double those of older adults.

When we included poverty as a variable in arrest rates by age the age-crime curve disappeared, as did other supposed “adolescent risks.” Where 45-49 year-olds suffer the same high poverty levels as average 15-19 year-olds, middle-agers display “teenage” levels (or worse) of crime, gun violence, traffic crashes, etc. Conversely, where teens experience low poverty, they do not display “adolescent risks.”

Long-held beliefs that young age is a causal factor in crime and risky behavior appear to be a prejudice, like discredited past efforts to associate violence and race. Gun control is a critical example of how reasoned debate and policy are sabotaged by stigmas against youth. Round 1 of the latest debate was not about realities, but a recitation of myths about what leaders wanted gun violence to be: just a “youth” problem.

Last year, President Barack Obama blamed gun violence on “children” with “a void inside them.” He previously called for “collective anger” at “an entire generation of young men in our society who… shoot each other.” The only agreement between the president’s limited gun-control and the National Rifle Association’s weaponize-grownups campaigns was their misrepresentation of youth and schools as the epicenters of gun violence.

It’s one thing to grieve the murders of children; it’s another to demonize the nation’s youth as mass killers and schools as killing fields. In reality, children and teenaged youths commit 4 percent of the nation’s homicides and they suffer 3 percent of all gun deaths, according to the FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The all-ages, all-venues nature of gun violence is obvious in recent rampages in homes, businesses, workplaces, shopping and entertainment centers, and streets by male suspects ages 15, 26, 27, 34, 35, 43, 62, 64, 65, and 68.

Just one-tenth of 1 percent of gun deaths occur in the nation’s 125,000 schools, according to CDC and National School Safety Center tabulations. The administration’s Child Maltreatment reports show 700 to 1,000 children and teenagers are murdered annually by violence in their homes, 30 to 50 times more than in schools. Young people murdered at home generate fleeting headlines (“Massachusetts father shoots children before killing himself,” “Connecticut teen fatally shot by dad called good kid,” “Father shot wife, children before killing himself”) but little attention from the president and other leaders.

Bad information breeds expedient, ineffective policy, as exemplified by the administration’s surviving gun initiatives and the president’s directive to the politically-attuned CDC to find that popular media and video games create a “culture of violence” among kids. The president praised local anti-violence initiatives in Minneapolis (where gun killings have declined modestly) while lamenting “youth violence” in Chicago (where deadly shootings have fallen much faster).

The irony is that young people show the most promising gun trends. Gun fatality rates have dropped by 50 percent among young Americans over the last two decades. Twenty years ago, Americans under age 25 comprised one-third of all gun fatalities; today, one-fifth. Meanwhile, those age 40-59 comprised one-fifth of gun deaths two decades ago; today, one-third.

Allowing for population changes, gun fatalities have been dropping four times faster among Americans under age 25 than among their middle-aged parent generation. Grownups are more likely to use a gun in the home to inflict violence on themselves and others than are their teenagers.

Why have generational gun risks reversed?  The Violence Policy Center’s analysis of the General Social Survey suggests one reason: “the aging of the current-gun owning population — primarily white males — and a lack of interest in guns by youth” has reduced the percent of homes with guns from more than half before 1980 to just one-third today.

We are likely to see even more paranoia, irrationality, and firearms accumulation among dwindling gun-rights activists. But perhaps the next major gun tragedy will finally jar science-respecting leaders like the president into rejecting slogans and scapegoating, insisting on evidence-based policy discussion, and learning from young people’s promising trends.

Mike Males is a senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) in San Francisco.


California Youth Crime Plunge Challenges Conventional Thinking

Unlike economists, if all criminal justice experts were laid end to end, they actually would reach a conclusion: there’s no way today’s young people could possibly have lower rates of murder, rape, other serious offenses, and all-around criminality than the sainted youth of the 1950s.

Just look at the sweeping changes in American childhood: widespread family breakup beginning in the Sixties; escalating poverty levels since the 1970s; the rise of gang and drug cultures in the Eighties; widespread, vastly more explicit popular culture in the 1990s; soaring drug abuse, crime, and imprisonment among their parents’ generation; and defunded schools, services, and programs.

Consider also the fact that there are 6 million more American teenaged youths in 2011 than in 1990, with the fastest growth in racial groups with higher arrest rates. The rapid growth and increasing racial diversity of youth populations is a development two influential crime authorities branded “deadly demographics.” They forecast in 2003 that the United States would endure a skyrocketing youth and young-adult crime epidemic bringing well over 10,000 murders annually.

Yet, falling crime numbers were debunking scary predictions. Now, the FBI’s latest 2011 data  shows youth arrests plummeted to lows not seen since the mid-1960s for robbery, assault, and drugs, and the lowest rates ever reliably recorded for homicide, rape, property offenses, and misdemeanors. Given that before the 1970s, many juvenile crimes were not recorded due to lack of fingerprint records or were masked under general labels like “delinquent tendencies,” the modern crime decline is even more dramatic.

In 2011, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report shows that youths accounted for just 4.1% of homicides and 9.5% of violent crimes. There are now considerably more violent crime arrests, including 40% more murders, among 40-49 year-olds than among juveniles under age 18—an eventuality conventional authorities never anticipated.

By prevailing theories, California would seem especially unlikely to experience a youth crime drop. Yet, as the state’s juvenile teenage population transitioned from 80% white in 1960 to 73% of color (Latino, Asian, African, Native, and other nonwhite American) by 2011 and suffered substantially higher poverty, new figures from the California’s state Criminal Justice Statistics Center show juvenile crime decreased more rapidly than it did nationally.

California juvenile arrest rates rose to a peak in 1974 and have generally plunged since to levels 50% lower today than in the 1970s. The drop in both felony and misdemeanor crime occurred among all races/ethnicities and both sexes.

Around 25% of the youth crime decline from 2010 to 2011 is attributable to a new law that reduced simple marijuana possession to an infraction. The remainder appears to reflect a real decrease in youth crime.

In fact, among California’s diverse youth population, rates of homicide, rape, and crime of all kinds have now fallen to levels substantially lower than those of a half-century ago. These trends should send a shock wave through the criminal justice establishment. Even with more sophisticated data and analytical techniques, no one predicted this.

Certainly, many crime authorities, such as the National Crime Victimization Survey, Monitoring the Future, and public health statistics, have acknowledged that standard measures show youth offending has been dropping rapidly for two decades. Unfortunately, many attribute the decline to unproven factors, such as more policing, demographic change, and various programs and campaigns.

For examples, we now know the 1990s “Boston miracle”—greatly reduced juvenile murders—occurred in most cities (San Francisco’s drop was even more impressive), including ones with no coherent anti-violence strategies. Studies generally find get-tough policing, including curfews and stronger sentencing, are not effective. In fact, the numbers of California juveniles confined and detained also have fallen to all-time lows in recent years, as have curfew arrests.

Emotional quips, anecdotes, generalizations of rare events, and radically expanded definitions designed to exaggerate supposedly “new” negative youth behaviors, such as bullying, sexting, dating violence, girls’ violence, and supposedly biodetermined “risk taking,” need to become as unacceptable to inflict on young people as they are to apply to other groups in society. We may even see a startling reality emerging: when their socioeconomic disadvantages are figured in, modern youth may be no more “crime prone” than older adults. From President Obama to academic halls to the local news, it is time to abolish prejudicial terms like “youth violence” and move beyond equating young people with crime.