Chapter 1: Is Youth Violence a Serious Problem?
Chapter 1 Preface
In April 1996, an infant was thrown out of his bassinet and beaten and kicked into a coma. The tragic fact that this baby became permanently brain damaged was overshadowed by the horrifying discovery that the perpetrator of the vicious act was a six-year-old boy. This incident greatly perplexed prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges faced with trying such a young suspect. It also heightened the public’s growing fear that violent crime is increasing at the hands of younger and more vicious predators.
Many commentators point to such troubling incidents as proof that youth violence is becoming a serious problem. For instance, the Council on Crime in America, a bipartisan commission on violent crime, has warned of a “coming storm of juvenile crime.” Pointing to demographic trends that indicate that the number of fourteen- to seventeen-year-old males will increase by 23 percent by the year 2005, the council warns that “each generation of crime-prone boys is several times more dangerous than the one before it.” In the logic of many concerned observers, as this population grows, the prevalence of youth violence will also rise.
While such predictions are alarming, not everyone believes that they signal a serious increase in juvenile violence. Some researchers feel that the extent of youth violence has been exaggerated. They maintain that the media and opportunistic politicians have unfairly blamed the violent crime problem on young...
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Youth Violence Is Increasing
In the United States, which has long had the dubious distinction of being the most violent and crime-ridden industrial nation in the world, fear of crime is a constant concern. But even by American standards, current worries about crime are remarkable. By early 1994, polls showed that crime had risen to the top of the list of the nation’s most serious problems, replacing that hardy perennial, concern about the economy.
“More than any other issue,” writes Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Haynes Johnson in his recent book Divided We Fall, “the growing specter of violence leads people to think that something fundamental has been broken in America. This is as true among blacks as among whites, among Asians as Latinos, among liberals as conservatives. The degree to which crime has spread comes over strongly wherever you travel in the United States. Though the core of the problem still lies in our inner cities, it is most striking—because it is not expected—in areas far removed from big city ghettos.”
Wherever they live, Americans are convinced that violence is more common and more pervasive today than it was a few years ago. Consequently, they feel more vulnerable and are demanding action. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the public sent a message to elected officials: 93 percent of respondents said the first priority for Congress and the President must be to pass effective anti-crime measures.
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Young Offenders Are Committing Increasingly Brutal Crimes
Six-year-old Talonda Lanier, of Silver Spring, was curled up, sleeping, on the back seat of her mother’s car when a white Ford Escort passed. Six shots rang out, echoing off a concrete underpass on Interstate 40 in North Carolina. Talonda made a whining sound and in a small sleepy voice said, “Mommy.”
In the pre-dawn gloom, Saidat Lanier turned to comfort her daughter, saying, “It’s okay, baby.” A moment later, she glanced back again. Blood was streaming down the vinyl seat.
Talonda and the 16-year-old who passed by and shot at the car for no apparent reason suddenly had become part of what the Justice Department calls “a crisis of violence by and against juveniles.”
The trend has been developing over the last decade nationally and locally, and it is now crystal clear: More children are involved in violent acts; they are killing and being killed in record numbers.
Nationally, violence took the lives of 2,428 children in 1992, an increase of 67 percent in just six years. In the Washington area, 76 children were homicide victims by the last week of November 1993—55 percent more than six years earlier.
Many more young people, like Talonda, live on, although forever changed.
Talonda spent the holidays learning to walk again at the Hospital for Sick Children in Northeast Washington. The left side of her body is partially paralyzed, and she has trouble...
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The Problem of Younger Violators Is Increasing
Four 15- and 16-year-olds were arrested in September 1995 in Lake Tahoe for what police call the “thrill shooting” of a 59-year-old man who was on a morning stroll when the youths, “looking for someone to scare,” pumped four bullets into him.
A 14-year-old checked into a Costa Mesa motel in August 1995 with his girlfriend, also 14, after the boy allegedly murdered a 63-year-old retiree so he could steal his 1987 Dodge.
A 12-year-old and two other youths are charged with kidnapping a 57-yearold Pomona man and shooting him to death in August 1995, after taking a joy ride in his Toyota while he pleaded for his life.
Two girls, ages 13 and 15, are charged with beating a 32-year-old woman to the ground on Crescent Heights Boulevard in West Hollywood, then trying to steal her purse and her Mercedes on July 31, 1995.
A 15-year-old from Thousand Oaks is accused of murdering the 16-year-old son of a Los Angeles police detective in a suburban back-yard attack in May 1995.
Five Tustin youths, ages 15 to 17, have been charged in the May 1995 slaying of a 14-year-old who tried to reclaim the $2,500 stereo system his grandfather had given him.
That’s just a few weeks’ worth of juvenile crime stories noted in the Los Angeles Times. It is far from a complete list—and it is not just a Southern California phenomenon.
An Increase in Kiddie Crime
All around the country,...
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Girls Are Becoming More Violent
The waterfront park where Reena Virk was viciously beaten and left to drown looks like a Canadian dream: clumps of trees dot one shore, while attractive middle-class homes line the opposite bank. Residents of Saanich, just north of Victoria, know the place as a handy getaway for jogging, boating and family outings. But like many suburban parks across the country, it has two faces. After dark, it becomes a haunt for restless local teenagers looking for a place safe from prying adult eyes. Here, kids can engage in the typical rituals of an adolescent Friday night—exchanging gossip, smoking, maybe having a drink or making out—usually without incident. So it probably wasn’t surprising that the 14-year-old Virk agreed to go off to the park with a couple of acquaintances on the night of Nov. 14, 1997, even though she had been in a nasty fight with some of their friends slightly earlier. On that occasion, another teenage girl stubbed out a lit cigarette on Virk’s forehead, apparently over suspicions that the Grade 9 student had spread rumors about her. “She very much wanted to belong with the cool kids,” recalls her friend Molly Pallmann. “That’s because a lot of kids would bug her—I would see her crying in the hallways. Unfortunately, that led to her being killed. She was a sweet kid.”
The horror of what happened next has sent shock waves across the country and attracted attention as far away as Sweden. Although some of the details remain...
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Weapon-Carrying in Schools Is a Growing Problem
Violence among young people is a growing problem in communities across America, taking a substantial toll in loss of life, physical and mental injury, and economic costs. The problem of violence in society is being brought into the school rooms around the country.
Young people are disproportionately represented both as victims and as perpetrators of interpersonal violence in the United States. Teenagers are more likely to be victims of violence than are persons in any other age group. The Bureau of Justice reports that 37 percent of the violent crime victimizations of youths ages twelve to fifteen years occur on school property.
Weapon-Carrying Is Becoming More Common
Weapon-carrying in schools reflects easy access to weapons in the community, their presence in many homes, and the apparently widespread attitude in American society that violence is an effective way to solve problems. Violence and weaponcarrying in schools also reflect the personal attitudes of students and their families. About one-half of the students in a New York City school survey reported that their families supported hitting back when hit and defending themselves if they have to, even if it means using a weapon. In another study of attitudes, nearly 40 percent of parents said they would tell their children “if someone attacked them, they should defend themselves, even if this means using a weapon.”
Although weapons in schools is probably not a...
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Youth Violence Is Not Increasing
In many ways, fear for our children’s safety was twisted into fear of our children in 1996. Truths about violence and youths were obscured by politicians’ and media hyperbole portraying today’s young children as a coming wave of “superpredator” youths. In fact:
• After a big increase, violence committed by youths has decreased recently for the first time in a decade. While no amount of brutality by or against young people can be tolerated, honest examinations of demographics, crime trends, and the potential of prevention efforts do not indicate that today’s young children should be objects of fear tomorrow.
• Children and youths are 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than to be arrested for violence.
• Crimes committed with ever-more-available guns account almost entirely for the terrible surge of violent crime by youths that the nation experienced from 1987 through 1994.
• The most punitive of the currently popular responses to youth crime—such as “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” laws that would count an act of juvenile delinquency as a strike, and laws that would put children in adult courts and adult prisons—are less cost-effective than common-sense prevention, individualized justice, and graduated sanctions.
The best news for violence prevention in 1996 was found in communities that showed they can do much to reclaim safety for...
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The Problem of Youth Violence Is Exaggerated
The headlines create the impression of a nation in crisis. Juvenile homicide hits all-time high, they declare. Scourge of youth violence sweeping the nation. Politicians lament the death of our youth and vow to keep neighborhoods safe. Teachers warn students to shun attractive clothing, fearing they will be shot by children who plan to make it their own. Rarely have alarm bells rung so loudly or so long; even good news like the recent decline in juvenile homicide was followed by warnings that the worst is yet to come.
Two problems of juvenile violence face our nation. The first problem is that certain neighborhoods have suffered from tremendous increases in youth violence. In these neighborhoods, youth homicide has doubled or even tripled in the past decade. The increase in homicide is itself distressing, and it suggests other troubles lurking beneath.
The second problem is our national response to the first problem. This problem arises from sympathy for the victim and fear of victimization; it ends with a loss of perspective on the small scale and a limited range of youth violence. Although American homicide rates are high and youth homicide is rising, only a tiny fraction of Americans run a real risk of homicide, and only a tiny fraction of those homicides are committed by children. Most cities that show rapid increases in youth homicide have changes on the scale of three homicides increasing to six homicides—a genuine...
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Teens Are Unjustly Blamed for an Increase in Violence
In previous decades, American politicians and social scientists predicted waves of violence stemming from “impulsive” blacks, volatile Eastern European immigrants, “hot-blooded” Latin Americans, and other groups “scientifically” judged to harbor innately aggressive traits. In each case, the news media joined in vilifying whatever temporarily unpopular minority politicians and pseudo-scientists had flocked to blame.
And in each case, the branding of disfavored population groups as inherently violent has been disproven. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man for examples.) In each case, violence has been found to be a straightforward function of poverty and income disparity.
Here we go again.
Experts have identified a 1990s demographic scapegoat for America’s pandemic violent crime: our own kids. A media scare campaign about the coming “storm” of “teenage violence” waged by liberal and conservative politicians and experts alike is in full roar.
Blaming “a ticking demographic time bomb,” U.S. News & World Report (12/4/95) warns of “scary kids around the corner.” The “troublesome demographic trends” are a growing adolescent population.
“A Teenage Time Bomb,” Time announced (1/15/96), quoting Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox’s view of teenagers as “temporary sociopaths—impulsive and...
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The Extent of Youth Violence Has Been Distorted
Fear of crime is palpable. Americans now rate crime as the most important public policy issue. Responding to the citizenry, politicians are rushing headlong toward massive investments in more police and prisons. . . .
Fear Affects Public Policy
Public policy is being fashioned on an anvil of fear. The public debate has been energized by extensive media coverage of terrible crimes (the killing of tourists in Florida, the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas in California, the killing of the father of basketball star Michael Jordan). Discussions of crime policy, whether in Washington, D.C., or in state capitals across the nation, have not been informed by data or thoughtful analysis. Legislators and the media seem to be gripped by a kind of moral panic reminiscent of the McCarthy period—then we were convinced there was a communist spy behind every door, now we fear the “predatory criminal” who has just been released from prison.
What is truly frightening about the current crime debate is its hysterical nature. Moreover, many of the proposals being adopted are enormously expensive and will radically diminish public funding for schools and health care, higher education and economic development. For instance, a sentencing law aimed at recidivists enacted in California (the broadest version of “Three Strikes” proposed so far) will double the state’s prison population, requiring the taxpayers to fund a prison expansion equal...
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