Friday, January 23, 2015

Automobile Theft and Juvenile Delinquency during the 1950s

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reported to Motor Trend readers in 1952 that: “automobiles now are among the largest items on the nation’s ledger of annual losses due to theft.”12 Indeed, between 1945 and 1952 more than a million vehicles were stolen. In 1951 alone, an estimated 196,960 cars worth more than $190 million were counted as taken. The 1950s were considered as the Golden Age of the automobile in America, and they were also golden years for auto thieves.
            In confronting the auto theft problem during the 1950s and 1960s, politicians and local law enforcement officials regarded the auto theft problem as largely a youth or juvenile delinquent problem.13 Organized crime or rings remained a very real threat to motor vehicle owners. However, it was a threat largely subsumed by concerns about the next generation, the future of American society, and the tendency of young people to defy authority and commit largely victimless crimes. The enlightened response toward young offenders that followed stressed reduced punishment, understanding young adult psychology and sociology, and above all education. The hard line stressing strong absolute values and harsh punishment was largely thrown out the window, at least in public pronouncements. Prevailing attitudes of the day suggested that criminal behavior was a social disease, the result of a breakdown of society and values, and that the youthful car thief was to be treated with compassion and understanding. To that end, a 1955 Senate report pointed to the high rates of imprisonment under the Dyer Act and argued that juveniles taking joy rides across state lines were never meant to be covered by that law. Rather it was seen that these youngsters had “misappropriated cars with no intent to steal.”14
            Compassion and understanding did little to arrest the meteoric rise of joy riding and juvenile delinquency. It was one more phenomena that added to the fears surrounding the early Cold War era. Then and now, government bureaucrats were fixated on statistics, regardless of whether they were helpful or misleading. And the statistics, despite their shortcomings, indicated a dangerous trend. For example, in 1948 young persons under the age of 17 were responsible for 17 percent of all car thefts, while four years later, in 1952, some 52 percent of auto thefts were committed by thieves under the age of 17. This disconcerting trend continued unabated until the mid-1950s. In 1956, of the 28,035 auto thieves who were arrested, some 39 percent were 15 or younger, 56 percent were 16 or younger, and 73 percent under the age of 18. And at the federal level, some 55.5 percent of all juvenile cases brought before the courts involved auto theft. Indeed, by the mid-1950s, teenagers were committing the majority of larcenies and burglaries, a statistic that did not augur well for a free and democratic United States engaged in a life and death struggle with global communism. Further analysis of auto thefts showed that this crime was overwhelmingly perpetrated by young males (the ratio of male to female was 120:1), and that the urban rate for such crimes was three to four times higher than offenses taking place in rural areas.15
            Sociologists William W. Wattenberg and James Balistrieri fleshed out the motives and class origins of these young criminals in an important study published in 1952. Their investigation of violators in Detroit was most disturbing to those involved in law enforcement, the courts, social work, and above all the parents of adolescents.16 By examining the arrest data of nearly 4,000 young people in Detroit in 1948, Wattenberg and Balistrieri concluded that the majority of auto thieves in this group came from above-average homes, had grown up in racially homogeneous areas, lived in an economically and sociologically stable home environment, and perhaps surprisingly, were on the whole better socially adjusted when compared to their peers. Why did they steal cars? As one New York City policeman would surmise a bit later in the decade, “for the sheer hell of it.”17 Wattenberg and Balistrieri concluded that the failure of community controls coupled with opportunity, amusement, and trifling punishment were at the heart of this major social problem.
            Another study from the period, however, that of Logan A. Hidy, demonstrated the complexities associated with any analysis of joy riding.18 As part of a survey of boys committed to the Boys’ Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio for the offense of auto theft, Hidy explored the motives of a group of 98 young men. While some 42 percent stated that they stole cars for fun, a surprising 48 percent claimed that they took a vehicle because they needed temporary transportation, understandably so, since half of that second cohort was runaways.19 As it turned out, almost all of the stolen vehicles were unlocked and open, and 80 percent had the key in the ignition lock. Only four of the 98 boys intended to keep the car they had taken, and only one wanted to sell the vehicle.
            While the Hidy study went largely unnoticed, the Wattenberg and Balistieri article became the starting point for many follow-up investigations conducted during the 1950s and 1960s. For example, between January 1952 and December 1954, Erwin Schepses conducted a careful study of 81 boys who had previously been involved in one or more car thefts and were committed to the New York State Training School for Boys in located in Warwick, New York. The group of younger boys, who had previously lived either in the New York City area or in rural Orange County, New York, were categorized in one of two groups: one cohort only stole cars; the other stole cars and also had committed other antisocial acts like larceny, assault, or crimes of a sexual nature. Motives for what was concluded to be mostly impulsive behavior included being influenced by the “Goddess of Speed,” inherent restlessness, or an “erotic element.” The latter motive was given an interesting twist in a 1960 study by Juvenile Court Judge Albert A. Woldman entitled “Juvenile Thefts and Juvenile Court.” He concluded that since “ ‘walking’ among young people has become a lost art,” auto theft was “almost exclusively a juvenile offense,” adding that “girls who require boys dating them to have cars are responsible for many thefts.”20
            In particular, the group considered “pure,” namely those who only stole cars, was decidedly white rather than negro or Puerto Rican. They also had higher IQs and a slightly lower rate of recidivism. Additionally, and again confirming Wattenberg and Balistieri, the families of the pure car thieves were typically economically secure and stable.21

            While the Wattenberg and Balistieri study pointed a finger to the white middle class, late 1950s crime data on large northern cities suggested that most auto thefts were due to “The Problem of Negro Crime.” Yet it was not a widely discussed issue; a Chicago judge claimed in 1958 that the reason for the silence was due to a “conspiracy of concealment.” According to this view, the NAACP, along with politicians eager to garner the black vote conveniently ignored the facts. For example, in Chicago (15 percent African-American) twice as many blacks were arrested as whites; in Los Angeles (13 percent African-American) 48 percent of all arrests for major offenses (including auto theft) were negro; and in Detroit (25 percent African-American), 66 percent of all those held in the Wayne County jail were black. Los Angeles Chief of Police William Parker did not mince words about this matter as he stated that the “Negro Community” is “his No. 1 crime problem. 22 Furthermore, a widely-held assumption was that the underprivileged and minorities were more likely to become hardened criminals.

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