In the past few years, shockingly violent acts perpetrated by young people have figured prominently in newspaper headlines. On the morning of May 9, 1995, a homeless man in New York City was burned alive by five youths, ranging in age from twelve to nineteen. Shortly thereafter, a three-year-old in Los Angeles was accidentally killed by gunfire when the car she was riding in with her older brother was ambushed by a gang of juveniles. The same year, a five-year-old in Chicago was thrown out of a fourteen-story building after the youngster refused to steal candy for his twelve-year-old murderers.
Such stories have added to the general public’s growing fear of a rising tide of violence among today’s youth. Many experts argue that statistics on teen violence lend credence to this fear. According to James Alan Fox, a researcher in demographic criminology, while the rate of murders committed by adults over age twenty-four fell 10 percent from 1990 to 1993, the rate among young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-four) rose 14 percent and the rate for teenagers jumped 26 percent. Furthermore, Fox maintains that the problem of youth violence will continue to increase. “Complacency and myopia in preparing for the coming crisis of youth crime will almost certainly guarantee a future blood bath,” he warns.
Alarming statistics and heinous crimes involving young offenders have created public outcry, which in turn has driven a trend toward tougher punishment for juvenile offenders. In January 1997, President Bill Clinton addressed the public regarding the need for “keeping our children safe and attacking the scourge of juvenile crime and gangs.” The president’s call for “every police officer, prosecutor and citizen in America [to work] together to keep our young people safe and young criminals off the streets” reflected the vigorous push in almost all fifty states to control juvenile crime through laws never before enforced on underaged offenders. These new laws have allowed juveniles as young as fourteen to be tried in adult courts, opened juvenile hearings to the public, and given authorities access to the records of young criminals. Many consider these tough new laws to be the last recourse in stemming the tide of vicious young predators.
Others, however, argue that this emphasis on punishment over prevention is misguided and clearly not in the best interest of young people. Prevention advocates insist that the most effective means to combat youth violence is early intervention for at-risk children and teens. They propose a number of strategies, including government-funded activities after school hours and outreach to gang members. Punishment, these critics assert, is an ineffective deterrent for most young people. They cite recent research that shows that juveniles who serve time in adult prisons are just as likely to return to crime as those detained in juvenile facilities. Some commentators maintain that society favors harsh punishment out of laziness. By locking these youths away, they argue, society can avoid the hard work necessary to prevent juvenile violence or to rehabilitate young offenders. Henry Giroux, author of Fugitive Cultures: Race, Violence, and Youth, contends that the trend toward harsher punishment stems from “degrading [media] depictions of youth as criminal, sexually decadent, drug crazed, and illiterate.” As a result, says Giroux, young people have been scapegoated and unfairly characterized as a growing threat to the public order. In reality, many critics assert, the problem of youth violence is far less prevalent and severe than the general public has been led to believe.
The debate over the most effective response to youth violence is far from resolved. Moreover, it is only one of several controversies that figure prominently in the discussion over youth violence. The following chapters of Youth Violence: Current Controversies examine different aspects of this ongoing debate, including the seriousness of the phenomenon, root causes of violent behavior, methods of prevention, types of intervention programs, and modes of punishment.