Juvenile Violent Offenders

Howard N Snyder. Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. Editor: Joshua Dressler. 2nd edition, Volume 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.

Most juveniles have committed a violent act, probably by the age of two. An objective observer spending a few minutes in a pre-school daycare center would likely see many incidents of physical assault and robbery. However, to classify an act as a crime (i.e., a behavior warranting severe sanctions by the justice system) is not as simple. Modern societies do not legally respond to the behaviors of young children as crimes because persons below the age of seven are generally considered unable to understand the implications of the actions. In fact, in most modern societies, it is common to assume that persons between the ages of seven and seventeen have a lesser degree of criminal responsibility for their actions than do adults.

Another complication in assessing the prevalence of juvenile violence is the varying definitions of what behaviors are violent. Most would include behaviors such as murder, forcible rape, assault with the intent to do serious bodily harm, and armed robbery. However, other behaviors are not as universally accepted as violent, behaviors such as the taking of a bicycle from another student on a school playground, fighting with a sibling, weapons possession in school, cruelty to animals, or drug selling. To some these behaviors are violent and justify strong sanctions for the perpetrators; to others the behaviors, while deserving attention, do not rise to the level of violent crime. In all, behaviors may or may not be classified as a violent crime depending on the age of the perpetrator and societal norms. Consequently, any attempt to assess the proportion of juveniles who commit violent crimes must acknowledge that the response is dependent on many assumptions.

Prevalence of Juvenile Violence

In recognition of these definitional issues, researchers who want to assess the prevalence of juvenile violence ask juveniles to report if they have ever committed a specific behavior, instead of simply asking the general question “Have you ever committed a violent crime?” The 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97) asked a nationally representative sample of nearly nine thousand individuals between ages twelve and sixteen such questions. Conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the NLSY97 found that 22 percent of sixteen year olds in the United States admitted to committing an assault. Twelve percent of sixteen year olds admitted to having carried a handgun and six percent admitted to having been in a gang. The proportions of juveniles who admitted committing such acts were similar in urban and in rural areas and for white and nonwhite youth. However, the prevalence rates were greater for some groups of juveniles. Twice as many boys as girls admitted to having committed an assault or belonging to a gang. Five times as many boys as girls admitted to carrying a handgun. Youth ages twelve to sixteen who had been in gangs were far more likely to have carried a handgun (15%) than were youth who had not been in a gang (1%). In summary, based on the self-reports of juveniles in 1997, it is fair to conclude that about one-quarter of all juveniles in the United States in the late 1990s committed violent crimes before their eighteenth birthdays.

The prevalence of the violent behaviors can be placed in perspective by comparing it with the prevalence of other behaviors. Remembering that 22 percent of sixteen year olds in the NLSY97 admitted to committing an assault, larger proportions of sixteen year olds admitted to drinking alcohol (68%), smoking cigarettes (58%), having sex (43%), using marijuana (38%), or purposely destroying property (30%). Smaller proportions admitted to stealing something worth more than fifty dollars (11%), selling drugs (12%), or never being arrested for any crime (12%).

As this last statistic indicates, only a fraction of youth who admit to committing a violent act ever come to the attention of the justice system for a violent crime. Law enforcement agencies across the country report each year to the F.B.I.’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program the number of arrests made of juveniles and adults for each of a long list of offenses. Since the 1930s, when the UCR Program was established, the F.B.I. has monitored violent crime trends with its own Violent Crime Index, four crimes that are usually considered to be violent and that are common across all parts of the country. These four crimes are murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. In 1998, the F.B.I. reported that 17 percent of all Violent Crime Index offense arrests, or 112,200 arrests, involved a person under age eighteen. More specifically, law enforcement made 2,100 juvenile arrests for murder, 5,300 juvenile arrests for forcible rape, 32,500 juvenile arrests for robbery, and 72,300 juvenile arrests for aggravated assault. Seventeen percent of juvenile arrests involved a female, 55 percent involved white youth, and 42 percent involved black youth.

From these arrest figures, it is possible to develop an estimate of the maximum proportion of the juvenile population arrested for a Violent Crime Index offense before turning age eighteen, if two assumptions are made. The first assumption is that no juvenile will be arrested more than once before his or her eighteenth birthday for a Violent Crime Index offense. The second assumption is that the number of arrests in each age group in 1998 (i.e., the arrests of ten year olds, the arrests of eleven year olds, etc.) were equal to the corresponding individual age group arrest estimates for persons who turned eighteen in 1998. With these two simplifying assumptions, it can be concluded that the 3.9 million persons who turned eighteen years of age in 1998 were involved in 112,200 arrests for a Violent Crime Index offense during their juvenile years. Therefore, no more than 3 percent (i.e., 112,200/3,900,000) of all juveniles who turned age eighteen in 1998 were ever arrested for a Violent Crime Index offense. This Violent Crime Index arrest prevalence estimate is a maximum estimate because the “one violent crime arrest per juvenile” assumption is certainly wrong. If it were assumed that the typical juvenile arrested for a Violent Crime Index offense was arrested twice for such crimes before his or her eighteenth birthday, then the estimated arrest prevalence rate would be cut in half, to 1.5 percent. In all, it is fair to conclude that at the end of the twentieth century in the United States about 2 percent of youth were arrested and entered the formal justice system charged with a Violent Crime Index offense during their juvenile years. In communities with juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rates above the nation average, their officially recognized juvenile violent crime arrest prevalence rate was probably greater. In many communities, the rate was certainly lower.

The prevalence of juvenile violence based on arrest statistics is well below the self-report prevalence noted above. The difference between the prevalence of juvenile violence based on self-report and arrest data is due to several factors. First, the victims may not report the crime to law enforcement because they believe that the crime is not serious enough or that law enforcement will take no action in the matter. Second, some violent crimes are reported to and handled by other authorities, such as a school principal or a parent. And finally, once the crime is reported to law enforcement, only about one of every two violent crime reports result in an arrest. In all, juvenile violent crime prevalence rates will differ if based on self-report or official justice system statistics. This discrepancy is also why juvenile arrests can increase over time even though there is no change in juvenile behavior—when conditions change so that more juvenile crimes are reported to, or otherwise come to the attention of, law enforcement.

The Growth in Juvenile Violence in the Early 1990s

Since 1973, the U.S. Department of Justice has monitored the amount of violent crime committed by juveniles and adults in the United States through its National Crime Victimization Survey (or NCVS). Each year NCVS interviewers ask the residents ages twelve and above in tens of thousands of households about the crimes they have experienced and the offenders who committed these crimes. To monitor serious violent crime trends, the NCVS adds together reports of three specific crimes, which together act as a barometer of serious violence in the United States. These three crimes are sexual assault, aggravated assault, and robbery. (Note that the F.B.I. Violent Crime Index is similar to the set of crimes used by the NCVS to monitor serious violence with the exception of murder—which is difficult for victims to report to NCVS interviewers.)

The NCVS has found the rate of serious violent crimes committed by juvenile offenders (i.e., persons under age eighteen) changed little between 1973 and 1989. However, after these years of stability, the rate of serious juvenile violence increased nearly 40 percent in the short period between 1989 and 1993, focusing the nation’s fears on the threat of juvenile violence. However, throughout this period of change, the percentage of all serious violent crimes committed by juveniles remained relatively constant, indicating the changes in juvenile crime were mirrored by similar changes in crimes committed by adult offenders—although throughout the period the media and others largely characterized the growth in serious violence as a juvenile crime problem.

The NCVS found that the proportion of juvenile serious violent crime reported to law enforcement changed little over the period between 1973 and 1997. Therefore, it is not surprising that trends in juvenile arrests for Violent Crime Index crimes have followed a similar pattern to victims’ reports in the NCVS of juvenile serious violent crime. Following nearly fifteen years of consistency, the juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rate increased more than 60 percent between 1988 and 1994. More dramatically, juvenile arrests for murder more than doubled between 1987 and 1993 after years of relative stability. The large growth in violent juveniles entering the juvenile justice system strained its resources and raised questions about the juvenile justice system’s ability to protect public and control these youth.

The Concept of the Juvenile Super Predator

The large increase in violent crime arrests (and especially the increase in murder arrests) combined with the media’s and the public’s fascination with a few horrific incidents caused policymakers to ask in the early 1990s if juvenile justice policies and procedures should be changed. Surprisingly, the idea that today’s juveniles are more troublesome and threatening than those of previous generations is not a new concern. Socrates made similar comments about the juveniles of his time. A juvenile court judge at the end of World War II wrote the following assessment of the teenagers of his time:

There is Teen-Age Trouble ahead. Plenty of it! We have just won a world war against the Axis enemies. Now we face a new critical war against a powerful enemy from within our gates. That enemy is juvenile delinquency … [Juvenile delinquency] is an ever growing evil, a shocking reality. It is a real and alarming menace to every city, borough, and township. It is a disease eating at the heart of America and gnawing at the vitals of our democracy. (Henry Ellenbogen, 1946)

There has always been a concern about the younger generation. In the past, adults generally attributed the deficiencies of juveniles to the poor quality of their education at home and in the schools and to poor acculturation. But in the early 1990s, other causes for the apparent differences in the younger generation were proposed. Due in part to the increase in crime and arrest trends, in part to the media obsession with juvenile violence, and in part to validation of the concept by a few high profile academics (e.g., John DiLulio of Princeton University and James Fox of Northeastern University), the phrase juvenile super predator entered the public consciousness. Juvenile super predators were characterized as ruthless sociopaths, youth with no moral conscience who see crime as a rite of passage, who are unconcerned about the consequences of their actions, and who are undeterred by the sanctions that could be leveled against them by the juvenile justice system. Some even argued that this new breed of offender had different DNA than their predecessors, changes caused by the alcohol and other drug abuse of their young, unmarried mothers. The argument went that violence juvenile crime was increasing and would continue to increase because this small group of juvenile super predators commits more vicious crimes with higher frequency than delinquents of past generations. The supporters of this argument concluded that the rehabilitative approach of the juvenile justice system was wasted on these youth because their natures were largely unchangeable. Deficiencies of earlier generations were attributed to factors that could be changed with appropriate interventions; but this new breed of juvenile super predator was so disturbed that change was unlikely. As a result, rehabilitation would be ineffectual. Protecting the public from these vicious juvenile criminals became the primary concern of juvenile justice policymakers.

Many state legislators adopted the super predator explanation for the increase in juvenile violent crime in the early 1990s and responded appropriately. To insure the justice system had at its disposal the appropriate sanctions to handle this new breed of juvenile offender, nearly every state in the early 1990s changed in significant ways how their justice systems responded to violent juveniles. These changes were all designed to increase the flow of juveniles into the adult criminal justice system and they took many forms. Many states adopted legislation that required juveniles charged with certain violent crimes to be tried as adults or expanded the list of crimes that were excluded for juvenile court jurisdiction. Some states gave prosecutors the discretion to file certain juvenile cases in either juvenile or adult court. Some states broadened the range of offenses or lowered the age of a youth a juvenile court judge could transfer to the criminal court. Many states made multiple changes.

The importance of the super predator construct was that it focused the policy makers’ attention on the offenders, and away from external social factors that could be causing violence by juveniles and adults to increase. If certain individuals were damaged beyond repair, the only solution was to incapacitate them to protect public safety. During this time period, the number of prison beds grew in the United States at unprecedented rates, while relatively few federal dollars were spent on delinquency prevention or rehabilitation programs. The simplicity of the super predator concept made it both attractive and harmful. It gave policymakers an easy answer to a complex social problem and an answer that permitted them to ignore (or discredit) many of the more complex social causes proposed for the increase in violent juvenile crime.

The Decline in Juvenile Violence in the Mid-1990s

But just as these fundamental changes were being made in the juvenile justice system in the United States, juvenile violent crime began to decline. Between 1993 and 1997 (the newest NCVS data available), the rate of serious violent crime committed by juveniles fell dramatically, to nearly the lowest level since 1973. By 1998, the juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rate had fallen to the lowest levels in the 1990s, but still about 10 percent above the levels of the mid 1980s. Between 1993 and 1998 the juvenile arrest rate for murder also fell substantially, erasing all of the increase that occurred after 1987. Therefore, based on different measures, the rate of juvenile violence in the late 1990s was similar to or below the rates of the early 1980s. In the late 1990s the notion of juvenile super predators came under attack, loosing favor with legislators and policy-makers. But its legacy, the fundamental changes in how some juvenile offenders are handled by the justice systems in the United States, remained.

Causes for the Growth and Decline of Juvenile Violence

The period between 1988 and 1998 saw a rapid growth and then as rapid a decline in juvenile violence. The causes for these large changes after years of stability have been debated. With the concept of the juvenile super predator fading, other causes have been proposed. Alfred Blumstein from Carnegie-Mellon University proposed that much of the increase in juvenile and adult violence was linked to a change in the nature of the illegal drug markets during this period. In the late 1980s crack cocaine entered the urban centers of the United States. The drug market for crack differed in significant ways from other drugs. Crack was sold in small quantities. Users often made multiple purchases a day. Drug sellers, therefore, had to be available on nearly an around-the-clock basis on street corners, with money in their pockets and with guns to protect their businesses. Blumstein argued that the new competition among drug dealers and drug gangs and the presence of money and firearms caused a situation where violence would naturally increase. The decline in the crack market in the mid-1990s removed much of the drug’s influence on the U.S. violent crime rate, with one exception. While crack left the inner cities, the weapons remained in the hands of juveniles and young adults.

A study of homicides by juveniles during this time period easily demonstrates the influence of firearms on juvenile violent crime trends. In the mid-1980s roughly half the juvenile homicide offenders killed with a firearm and half killed with other weapons (e.g., knives, clubs, hands, feet, etc.). The doubling of homicides by juveniles between 1987 and 1994 was all firearm related. During this period the number of juvenile homicides committed without firearms did not change, while the proportion of homicides committed with firearms increased by 82 percent. Correspondingly, the entire decline in juvenile homicides after 1994 was a decrease in firearm-related homicides. Clearly, between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s juvenile homicide trends were linked to firearms.

Many argue that juvenile gangs were responsible for much of the increase in juvenile violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There are no national statistics that can support or discredit such a statement. But national surveys of law enforcement agencies do show that the number of youth gangs did increase substantially during this period. In addition, research conducted by Terence Thornberry and his colleagues in Rochester, New York, found that while gang members reported less than one-third of the high-risk sample of youth they studied, they were responsible for more than two-thirds of the violent crimes committed by these youth. Thornberry and colleagues also found that the frequency with which juveniles commit violent crimes increases after entering a gang and declines after leaving a gang. Therefore, the growth of youth gangs and the increased number of juvenile gang members during this period may be the source of some of the increase in juvenile violence. However, based on reports from law enforcement agencies, the number of youth gangs and juvenile gang members did not decline during the mid-1990s while juvenile violence did. So the link between youth gangs and the trends in juvenile violence is not clear.

But why, after the large decline in juvenile violence as measured by the NCVS, were juvenile violent crime arrest rates in 1998 still above those of the early 1980s? The reason appears to be a policy change many states adopted in the early 1980s, a change that required law enforcement to make an arrest in domestic violence incidents. The evidence for this can be found in a study of arrest trends. Two high-volume violent crimes, robbery and aggravated assault, account for more than 90 percent of the Violent Crime Index. Their patterns control the overall Violent Crime Index arrest trends. If there were a general increase or decrease in violence (and in juvenile super predators), the expectation would be for parallel changes in juvenile robbery and aggravated assault. However, between 1980 and 1998 the juvenile arrest rate for robbery declined 35 percent, while the juvenile arrest rate for aggravated assault increased 64 percent. Therefore, the juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rate in 1998 was above the 1980 rate because of the large increase in arrests for aggravated assault—even though the NCVS found similar rates of aggravated assault by juveniles in these two years. Another piece of evidence is the fact that the group with the greatest percent increase in arrests for aggravated assault was persons in the thirties and forties, not juveniles and youth adults—another fact that counters the juvenile super predator argument. Finally, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s female arrests for aggravated assault increased more than male arrests. Therefore, with no difference in juvenile violent crime, what could explain the large difference in juvenile violent crime arrests? One possibility is a change in public policy that targeted aggravated assaults and disproportionately targeted women and persons in their thirties and forties. The most likely candidate is the change in police response to domestic violence calls.

While not generally considered a juvenile issue, this change brought a large number of juveniles into the justice system charged with a violent crime. Fights with parents or siblings that had previously been ignored by law enforcement, or in which the youth had been charged with the status offense of incorrigibility or ungovernability, now resulted in an arrest for simple or aggravated assault. In 1998, it was not uncommon for as many as one-third of all juveniles referred to court for a violent crime to be charged with domestic violence. These youth with serious family problems present the juvenile justice system with a new type of juvenile offender, an offender type that has been around for years but largely ignored by the formal juvenile justice system, an offender with different service needs than other violent offenders.

Future Predictions of Juvenile Violence

A part of the super predator rhetoric was the prediction of a coming bloodbath of juvenile violent crime as the number of juvenile super predators grew substantially with the expected growth in the general juvenile population into the twenty-first century. The events of the recent past show this argument to be flawed. In the period between the 1985 and 1998, when juvenile violence crime soared and then declined, when the number of murders by juveniles doubled and then fell back to its original level, the size of the juvenile population did not change significantly. Therefore, the level of juvenile violence can change substantially with no change in the juvenile population. The fact is that nothing in the juvenile population trends in the 1980s and 1990s predicted the growth and the decline in juvenile violence experienced during this period. The juvenile population in the United States is expected to grow by one percent per year in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Any effect of this small population change on the level of juvenile violence can easily be dwarfed by the influence of other factors, as was seen in the mid-1990s. The simple truth is, given our current knowledge of the processes that affect changes in the levels of juvenile violence, any attempt to predict the future of juvenile violence crime is foolhardy.