Youth Violence

Scope of the Problem

Between 1975 and 1984, the rate of juvenile arrests for violent crime was relatively stable. Then, it began to climb sharply. Over the next 10 years (1985-1994), juvenile arrests for murder, robbery, motor vehicle theft and weapons violations far surpassed the growth in adult arrests for these crimes.

In 1994, the number of arrests of persons under the age of 18 exceeded 2.7 million. Juveniles committed 14% of all violent crimes and 25% of all property crimes that were cleared. This includes 10% of all murders, 13% of all aggravated assaults, 14% of all forcible rapes, 20% of all robberies, 21% of all burglaries, 25% of all motor vehicle thefts, 25% of all larceny thefts, and 48% of all arsons (Snyder 1996).

The growth in juvenile homicides has been particularly disturbing. The number of juvenile offenders arrested for murder in 1994 was three times the number arrested in 1985. Most of these cases involved the use of firearms. Although rates of non-firearm homicide declined slightly between 1985 and 1994, firearm homicides of young males tripled. Teen suicides with a firearm have increased as well. A teenage male in the United States today is more likely to die of a gunshot wound than all natural causes of death combined (Fingerhut, 1993).

The rapid rise of gun homicides of youth coincided with the growth of crack cocaine markets in the inner city (Blumstein 1995). Criminologists speculate that when drug dealers recruited and armed juvenile "runners", uninvolved youth in the neighborhood armed themselves in response. Between 1987 and 1994, juvenile arrest rates for weapons violations nearly doubled (Blumstein 1995, Snyder 1996). Today, young people report that guns are commonly carried and readily used (Ash 1996, Sheley and Wright 1993).

The increased availability of guns to youth has been matched by an increased willingness to use violence to achieve one’s goals. Standing up for oneself, and using force to maintain "respect", are essential elements of what is known as the "code of the streets." For those who live by this code, it is unthinkable to walk away from a fight (Anderson 1994).

Violent confrontations are common in adolescence. If both parties are armed, the one who acts first usually gains a decided advantage. The realization that many youth on the street are carrying a weapon increases the potential for an immediate and exaggerated response to real or perceived threats (Roth 1994). Even trivial disputes can end in death when guns are involved (Kellermann 1994, Cook 1993).

Young males commit the bulk of juvenile crime and violence. Eighty-six percent of juvenile violent crime arrests and 75% of property crime arrests involve males. Since most youth crime is committed against other youth, males are also more likely to be victims of violence than females. The only exceptions are the victimizations of rape and domestic abuse, both of which involve girls more often than boys (National Research Council 1993). Before the age of 13, boys and girls have an equally small risk of being murdered. By age 17, the risk of homicide among males is five times that of females.

Although girls are less often involved as perpetrators of violent crime, the rates of offending among girls are increasing faster than among boys (Snyder 1996). Between 1985 and 1994, female juvenile violent crime arrests more than doubled. In 1989, girls were much less likely than boys to carry a weapon to school. By 1993, girls reported carrying a weapon nearly as often as boys. Girls who carry a weapon more often carry a knife, box-cutter or some other cutting or piercing instrument. Boys are more likely to carry a gun (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1993).

Despite the changing rate and nature of juvenile violence, it is important to remember that adults are still responsible for the vast majority of crimes. This is particularly true of violent crimes. In 1994, adults committed 75% of the property crimes and 86% of the violent crimes. The rate of increase in juvenile crime has been higher, but adults are responsible for most of the recent growth in total number of violent and property crimes (Snyder 1996).

Adults facilitate many juvenile crimes as well. Although many young people benefit from the influence of a responsible, caring adult, others are led down a different path. The principal commodities of violence -- drugs, alcohol, and firearms -- are produced by adults, as are the media that glorify them (National Research Council 1993). Sometimes, adults take a direct role in encouraging juvenile violence. Three out of 10 juveniles who killed between 1980 and 1994 had an adult accomplice.

Although these statistics give cause for concern, it is important to keep the problem of youth violence in perspective. Most young males are not criminals, much less heartless "predators." In reality, young males are much more likely to be victims of violence than are most adults. Between 1987 and 1992, the rate of handgun crime against youths 16 to 19 years of age was almost three times higher than the national average (14.2 victimizations per 1,000 youths versus 4.9 per 1,000 persons of all ages). The rate of handgun crimes against children 12 to 15 years of age exceeded the annual rate of handgun crime overall (5.0 versus 4.9 per 1,000 persons). African-American males were victimized at three to four times the rate of whites of comparable age, and eight times the rate of the population at large (Rand 1994).

The current portrait of youth presented by the media is not grounded in statistical reality. The vast majority of young people do not carry weapons, do not deal drugs, do not join gangs and do not victimize their friends or neighborhoods. Less than one half of one percent of all juveniles aged 10 to 17 in the U.S. were arrested for a violent crime index offense in 1994. Most young people, like most adults, want nothing more than to lead their lives in peace.

The causes of violence are many. They will not be solved by simple measures or quick fixes. The multi-faceted nature of violence almost invariably frustrates simplistic approaches to the problem. Youth violence can be prevented, but efforts must start at an early age and be sustained over time. Early childhood experiences, the nature of a child’s family, the influence of peers, the neighborhood and society are keys to solving the puzzle.