FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said last week that children who were shut out of schools during the pandemic and who have yet to go back to the classroom are factors in America’s “violent crime crisis.”
He said juveniles have added to the brew of drugs, gangs and illegal guns that are fueling the crime spree.
“We are seeing, and I hear this from chiefs and sheriffs all the time, as well as our own agents, an alarming uptick in the incidence of juveniles engaging in violence, often graduating from carjackings to even worse violence,” Mr. Wray said. “This is a real challenge for the legal system because we’re not set up to very effectively deal with crimes committed by minors.”
Part of that, he said, is “juveniles who post-COVID have not returned to school.”
“That may contribute to the juvenile effect,” he said in testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
He made the revelations in response to a question by Sen. Jon Ossoff, Georgia Democrat, who wanted to know what was behind the rise in violent crime in his state and elsewhere.
In addition to the juveniles, Mr. Wray said criminals are slipping through holes either because of backlogs or intentional policies such as prosecutorial discretion or “bail practices.”
“There are too many criminals that are being released back onto the streets,” he said, but the trend isn’t universal.
He didn’t name the communities affected, though analysts have tied New York’s focus on bail reforms to a surge in criminal reoffenses.
Even behind bars, he said, some criminals gain access to cellphones to orchestrate violence.
Analysts debate the levels of crime, and confusing reporting of data to the FBI has hindered attempts to get a clear picture.
Americans viscerally report heightened fear of crime, and streets in some cities are clearly worse. The Major Cities Chiefs Association said homicide and rape rates have dipped in 2022 but violent crime overall — powered by robberies and assaults — is up in 70 cities surveyed.
The violent crime rate among juveniles was dropping before the pandemic, according to Justice Department data. The rate had steadily decreased since the mid-1990s, when youth arrests on violent crime charges topped 140,000. In 2020, the number was less than 40,000.
The drop has been consistent across all categories of crime, including homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery.
But those who track the issue say youth crime rates rose with the pandemic, and with more gentle approaches to offenders.
In the District of Columbia, police reported 63 juveniles arrested for carjacking as of early September. That was well ahead of 2019’s total of 25, and on pace to break 2021’s record of 100 youth carjacking arrests.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, which borders the district, police had arrested 430 juveniles as of early September. That was more than double last year’s rate.
Some communities responded with curfews to try to control who was out on the streets, though Justice Department data indicates crime during the afternoon, including school hours, is more common than nighttime offenses.
Mr. Wray said the FBI has taken on new roles but still devotes more personnel to tackling violent crime than any other single issue.
“Day in, day out, the FBI that most Americans and certainly most law enforcement professionals … experience most is really more focused on the traditional criminal stuff,” he said.
He said the press focuses on national security, espionage and cybercrimes cases, but that doesn’t capture the full picture of activity at the bureau.
He said the FBI tallied more than 50 violent crime arrests a day over the summer.
It was the bureau’s other activities that drew fire from some Republicans on Thursday.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, demanded to know whether the FBI is using tactics to circumvent the law’s prohibition on obtaining records of Americans’ social media activities.
Mr. Wray said the bureau is operating within the law, but he didn’t directly answer Mr. Paul’s inquiry.
Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, prodded Mr. Wray over the senator’s claim that the FBI “set me up” by arranging a suspicious briefing in 2020 where he was told he might be a target for Russian disinformation. The briefing’s contents were leaked in 2021.
“Why won’t you tell us who directed that briefing?” Mr. Johnson demanded.
The leaked information became a campaign issue when Mr. Johnson’s Democratic opponent cited it this year. Mr. Johnson won reelection.
“Somebody leaked that FBI briefing,” he said. “That is election interference.”
Mr. Wray said he couldn’t identify a person who arranged the “defensive” briefing but said he would offer a new briefing explaining how the briefing system works.
Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, ticked off a litany of problems he saw at the FBI and asked Mr. Wray: “Do you think you are still up to this job?”
“I absolutely think I’m still up to this job, and I think our workforce feels the same way,” Mr. Wray said.
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