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Juvenile Violent Offenders - Causes For The Growth And Decline Of Juvenile Violence

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The period between 1988 and 1998 saw a rapid growth and then as rapid a decline in juvenile violence. The causes for these large changes after years of stability have been debated. With the concept of the juvenile super predator fading, other causes have been proposed. Alfred Blumstein from Carnegie-Mellon University proposed that much of the increase in juvenile and adult violence was linked to a change in the nature of the illegal drug markets during this period. In the late 1980s crack cocaine entered the urban centers of the United States. The drug market for crack differed in significant ways from other drugs. Crack was sold in small quantities. Users often made multiple purchases a day. Drug sellers, therefore, had to be available on nearly an around-the-clock basis on street corners, with money in their pockets and with guns to protect their businesses. Blumstein argued that the new competition among drug dealers and drug gangs and the presence of money and firearms caused a situation where violence would naturally increase. The decline in the crack market in the mid-1990s removed much of the drug's influence on the U.S. violent crime rate, with one exception. While crack left the inner cities, the weapons remained in the hands of juveniles and young adults.

A study of homicides by juveniles during this time period easily demonstrates the influence of firearms on juvenile violent crime trends. In the mid-1980s roughly half the juvenile homicide offenders killed with a firearm and half killed with other weapons (e.g., knives, clubs, hands, feet, etc.). The doubling of homicides by juveniles between 1987 and 1994 was all firearm related. During this period the number of juvenile homicides committed without firearms did not change, while the proportion of homicides committed with firearms increased by 82 percent. Correspondingly, the entire decline in juvenile homicides after 1994 was a decrease in firearm-related homicides. Clearly, between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s juvenile homicide trends were linked to firearms.

Many argue that juvenile gangs were responsible for much of the increase in juvenile violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There are no national statistics that can support or discredit such a statement. But national surveys of law enforcement agencies do show that the number of youth gangs did increase substantially during this period. In addition, research conducted by Terence Thornberry and his colleagues in Rochester, New York, found that while gang members reported less than one-third of the high-risk sample of youth they studied, they were responsible for more than two-thirds of the violent crimes committed by these youth. Thornberry and colleagues also found that the frequency with which juveniles commit violent crimes increases after entering a gang and declines after leaving a gang. Therefore, the growth of youth gangs and the increased number of juvenile gang members during this period may be the source of some of the increase in juvenile violence. However, based on reports from law enforcement agencies, the number of youth gangs and juvenile gang members did not decline during the mid-1990s while juvenile violence did. So the link between youth gangs and the trends in juvenile violence is not clear.

But why, after the large decline in juvenile violence as measured by the NCVS, were juvenile violent crime arrest rates in 1998 still above those of the early 1980s? The reason appears to be a policy change many states adopted in the early 1980s, a change that required law enforcement to make an arrest in domestic violence incidents. The evidence for this can be found in a study of arrest trends. Two high-volume violent crimes, robbery and aggravated assault, account for more than 90 percent of the Violent Crime Index. Their patterns control the overall Violent Crime Index arrest trends. If there were a general increase or decrease in violence (and in juvenile super predators), the expectation would be for parallel changes in juvenile robbery and aggravated assault. However, between 1980 and 1998 the juvenile arrest rate for robbery declined 35 percent, while the juvenile arrest rate for aggravated assault increased 64 percent. Therefore, the juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rate in 1998 was above the 1980 rate because of the large increase in arrests for aggravated assault—even though the NCVS found similar rates of aggravated assault by juveniles in these two years. Another piece of evidence is the fact that the group with the greatest percent increase in arrests for aggravated assault was persons in the thirties and forties, not juveniles and youth adults—another fact that counters the juvenile super predator argument. Finally, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s female arrests for aggravated assault increased more than male arrests. Therefore, with no difference in juvenile violent crime, what could explain the large difference in juvenile violent crime arrests? One possibility is a change in public policy that targeted aggravated assaults and disproportionately targeted women and persons in their thirties and forties. The most likely candidate is the change in police response to domestic violence calls.

While not generally considered a juvenile issue, this change brought a large number of juveniles into the justice system charged with a violent crime. Fights with parents or siblings that had previously been ignored by law enforcement, or in which the youth had been charged with the status offense of incorrigibility or ungovernability, now resulted in an arrest for simple or aggravated assault. In 1998, it was not uncommon for as many as one-third of all juveniles referred to court for a violent crime to be charged with domestic violence. These youth with serious family problems present the juvenile justice system with a new type of juvenile offender, an offender type that has been around for years but largely ignored by the formal juvenile justice system, an offender with different service needs than other violent offenders.

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