Juvenile Crime in the U.S.
Few social policy issues are as highly emotionally charged as those pertaining to juvenile crime. Opposing views abound concerning the nature and extent of the problem, the causes, theoretical underpinnings, and the best ways to mitigate this tragic trend. Youthful offenders were treated like adult criminals until around 1900, when separate juvenile processing procedures developed with goals of rehabilitation. Facing drastic increases in violent crime during the 1980s, however, the pendulum has swung back to processing many juvenile offenders as adults; possibly being charged with punishments as severe as life in prison and the death penalty. In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled in “Roper v. Simmons” that the death penalty for those under the age of eighteen was considered cruel and unusual punishment and was therefore unconstitutional. New research on juvenile brain development and malfunction, made possible by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), now raises scientific and human rights challenges to many "get tough" social policies.
Keywords Co-offending; Eighth Amendment; Frontal Lobe; Juvenile; Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); Procedural justice; Punishment; Recidivism; Rehabilitation; Re-entry Population; Re-offenders; School-safety; Sentencing Policy
Juvenile crime is defined as illegal acts against people or property committed by individuals under the age of eighteen. It is a complex social concern inextricably linked with issues of race, poverty, gender, child abuse and neglect, family breakdown, educational failure, urban decay, substance abuse, child development, and failed social services and networks. In addition to the science relevant to these issues, however, the debate over juvenile offenders is also governed by the media, public opinion, and personal beliefs. Our own fears and vulnerabilities help shape personal and public policy views toward juvenile criminal offenders and the mechanisms by which crime can be reduced in our cities and towns.
It is clear that most people believe that juvenile violent crime to be a national crisis. In January of 2007, for example, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) completed a national poll of US voters and nine out of ten respondents agreed that "youth crime is a major problem in our communities" (Krisberg & Marchionna, 2007). Stories like the following fuel our fears and sense of helplessness: In March of 1998, Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, were students at the Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Coming to school dressed in camouflage fatigues and possessing a van full of ammunition, Golden set off the school's fire alarm. While their classmates filed out of the building, the boys opened fire upon them. Fifteen people were injured, five fatally (Ramsland, 2007). In Chicago, an 11-year-old boy murdered a 14-year-old girl in order to impress his fellow gang members (Satterthwaite, 1997, p. 18). In Whitfield County, Georgia, six youths, ages fifteen through seventeen, were arrested and charged with stealing several vehicles and breaking into hundreds of others Mitchell, 2013).
Many experts in juvenile crime, however, fault the media for what they believe to be sensationalistic, ratings-driven coverage of a relative few gruesome criminal events. Media reporter, Susan Douglas, (1993) and others argue that this emphasis on specific incidences of juvenile violent crime is evil in its own right because it fails to consider the institutional violence in our society that fosters juvenile crime, such as poverty, racism, unemployment, lack of gun control, poor educational opportunities, failed drug treatment policies, violent homes and communities, and inadequate social and medical services.
Juvenile Crime Rates
One salient topic concerning juvenile crime, then, is the nature and extent of it in our society. Experts on juvenile crime usually rely on annual data provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Uniform Crime Report (UCR) that tracks arrests involving all offenders and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Additionally, the National Criminal Victimization Survey released by US Department of Justice surveys thousands of households nationwide to gather data on criminal victimization that was not reported to the police. According to the FBI, 10.4 percent of the arrests for all crime in the United States involved juvenile offenders. Further review of the FBI and OJJDP data for 2012 suggests a decrease in overall juvenile crime rates from 2011 to 2012: The number of juveniles arrested for property crimes in 2012 decreased 11.6 percent from the 2011 values; the number of juveniles arrested for murder in 2012 decreased 14.4 percent; and the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes decreased 10.3 percent. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2013).
While this data raises alarm for some public policy advocates, others, such as Michael Jones and Barry Krisberg (1994) of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency argue that juvenile crime rates have not soared over the past three decades, and, in fact, they have declined or remained constant when one considers more detailed and reliable indicators. Since juvenile offenders are more likely to commit crimes with their peers ("co-offend"), for example, the successful arrest of three juveniles for one murder inflates the actual juvenile crime data to suggest that there were three murders, not one. Thus, one major challenge in any analysis of juvenile crime and resulting public policy is one's interpretation of the data available about the nature and extent of juvenile criminal actions annually.
Causes of Youth Violence
Seifert (1999) reports that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency (OJJDP) identified six risk categories for youth violence that provides a useful way of organizing causal conditions for youthful offenders: Community/society, economic, family, individual, school, and peers.
- "Community/society" entails cultural norms for weapons, violent media and video games, hostile attitudes toward women, easy availability of illegal drugs, and the acquisition of things and power.
- Economic risks pertain to poverty, homelessness, and joblessness.
- Family risks include violence, child abuse and neglect, conflict, and lack of nurturing and support. Additionally, Mocan and Tekin (2006) found that "gun availability at home is positively related to the propensity to commit crime for juveniles." Despite research suggesting that the public believes parents have some responsibility for the crimes of their children, there seems to be little public support for laws making parents liable for those crimes (Brank & Weisz, 2004).
- A failed educational experience and failing educational systems reflect the category of "schools" in the OJJDP report. One interesting study on the short-term effect of attending school on juvenile crime is reported by Jacob and Lefgren (2003). During periods of school attendance, juvenile property crime decreased by 14 percent. Unfortunately, during that same period of school attendance, the concentration of youth in schools increased violent crime by 28 percent. School-safety, then, remains a grave educational concern. While policing efforts, such as metal detectors and locker searches remain a necessity, greater attention needs to be paid to the emotional climates of our schools. Anti-bullying programs, conflict resolution measures, diversity, inclusion and gender equity efforts, and other community-building and social service endeavors must become paramount interventions in our goal to make schools safe, just, and compassionate for all youth.
- These efforts, however, are complicated by the pervasive existence of gangs in our culture today, which encompasses of OJJDP category of "peers." While gangs are not new to American society, the vast increase in their numbers, their blanket coverage of our nation throughout urban and rural areas, their subculture of violence, and their enhanced influence in all facets of American life make them a deadly and powerful force in juvenile crime.
- Due to recent scientific inquiry, however, the OJJDP risk category of "individual" is receiving compelling consideration in the debate over juvenile crime. Through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies, scientists know that the brain of a juvenile is less developed than that of an adult, especially in the frontal lobe, which is responsible for executive, high order functioning, such as memory, planning, and inhibition. Bower (2004) and others (Steinberg, 2012) suggest this condition presents some juveniles with difficulties in "regulating aggression, long-range planning, mental flexibility, abstract thinking, the capacity to hold in mind related pieces of information, and perhaps moral judgment." In addition to the findings on inherent diminished brain functioning capacity in children, MRI research also suggests that exposure to violent video games and television might impact frontal lobe development and function negatively (Playing, 2003; Phillips, 2004; Stukel, 2012). Because of these findings, advocates in juvenile justice, such as the Human Rights Watch, have pressured politicians and judicial leaders to reconsider harsh, punitive measures in sentencing juvenile violent offenders. In September 2013, Massachusetts became the thirty-ninth state, along with the federal government and the District of Columbia, to classify seventeen-year-old defendants as juveniles. Prior to these new laws, seventeen-year-olds were allowed to be tried, arraigned, and sentenced as adults.
While the above risk categories provide some characteristics of juvenile offenders, they do not inevitably lead to crime. Additionally, most of them would be characterized as psychological theories of crime; emphasizing the traits of an individual as the primary factor in criminal causation.
Prevailing beliefs about children and criminality can be best viewed as a...
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