Stories of violence by and against youth explode from the news like gunshots from a passing car. It would seem that America is under attack by armed teenagers.
During the early 1980s, about a thousand murders were committed by teens each year in the United States. By the middle of the 1990s, that had grown to over three thousand per year, or almost 10 percent of all murders.
Numbers like that make it sound like teen violence is a growing epidemic, an impression that is given further validity by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, which now identify teen violence as a major public health problem.
Talking about teen violence in terms of murder is the obvious thing to do because of the dramatic finality and loss that death brings, but the epidemic—if that is actually what it is—encompasses much more than murder. The statistics for armed robbery, assault, rape, and carjackings by juveniles in the United States are higher than in any other country in the world. The teenage perpetrators and victims come from every walk of life and every ethnic background. People of all ages are shocked, saddened, and frightened by this news, but no one is more immediately affected by the epidemic of teen violence than teenagers themselves.
Terminology of teen violence
Violence is any physical conduct that causes injury or harm to another person. Teen violence means that either the victim, the perpetrator, or both are between twelve and twenty years old. Teen violence includes murder, shooting, stabbing, beating, rape, robbery, and even simply threatening someone with physical harm. All are against the law.
The terms teen, youth, and juvenile are used more or less interchangeably when discussing violence by and against young people. A teen is a person between thirteen and twenty years old. Youth is a more general term applied to individuals between ages twelve and twenty-four. Juvenile has a precise meaning, especially to police and judges, since the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officially defines juvenile crime as illegal acts committed by persons ages ten through seventeen. Since statistics are not collected specifically for the teenagers, in this book most figures and examples are based on statistics for the juvenile group.
A new trend
The extent of teen violence seems overwhelming, yet there are rays of hope. Figures released by the FBI at the end of 1996 showed that in 1995, violent crime rates among juveniles dropped for the first time in seven years. Overall violent crime was down 4 percent for individuals under age seventeen, 7 percent among kids age ten to fourteen. Juvenile arrests specifically for murder also fell, 14 percent less than 1994 and 23 percent less than 1993. Furthermore, rape arrests among teens dropped 4 percent, robbery arrests dropped 1 percent, and aggravated assault arrests dropped 3 percent from 1994 to 1995. These declines were small, but they could be the start of a new trend—or they could be only a temporary downturn.
With most of the country expecting juvenile crime to continue growing, the 1995 statistics brought renewed hope to many people. U.S. attorney general Janet Reno was one of them. She stated that the figures proved that the “explosion in teenage crime can be averted through community policing, mentor programs, and groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs. . . . We must do everything we can to prevent children from getting into trouble in the first place.”
All the stories about teen violence in the news, however, tend to obscure the fact that the majority of young people are not involved in violent crimes as perpetrators or victims. Many civic leaders are anxious to put statistics on teen violence in perspective and leave the hysteria of the headlines behind. It seems people need to be reminded that teenagers are, as Hugh B. Price of the National Urban League said, “an asset to their communities and to this country, not a liability.”