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Juvenile Violent Offenders - Prevalence Of Juvenile Violence

crime arrests percent index

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.

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