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Juvenile Justice System

Juvenile Crime And Violence

Juvenile crime is a perennial public concern, although public perceptions of juvenile crime are often shaped by misconceptions and unwarranted fears rather than by objective facts. For example, in 1996 the cover of a national magazine (Newsweek, March 10) made the alarming claim that "Juvenile violence is soaring–and it's going to get worse." In contrast, a 1999 federal report by Howard Snyder and Melissa Sickmund cited national arrest statistics and other data showing that violent juvenile crime peaked in 1993 and began a steady decline. From 1995 to 1999, juvenile arrests for violent crime declined 23 percent, and homicides declined an astonishing 56 percent, despite an 8 percent increase in the population of juveniles. The murder rate for juveniles in 1999 was the lowest since 1966. Yet in 1999, public anxiety over a series of school shootings skyrocketed when two teenage boys murdered twelve classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado.

The Surgeon General's Report on Youth Violence, released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2000, identified numerous public myths about youth violence. Among these misconceptions were: (1) the belief that the United States was threatened by a new, violent breed of young super-predators; (2) nothing works in treating or preventing juvenile violence; and (3) juvenile crime could be curbed by prosecuting juvenile offenders as adults. In fact, there was no evidence that young offenders in 2000 were more vicious or callous than previous generations, only that the availability of cheaper, more lethal firearms resulted in more homicides. Further, controlled scientific studies found that well-run prevention and intervention programs do reduce violent behavior and criminal recidivism among the young. And finally, studies found no crime reduction associated with transferring juveniles to adult court; in contrast, youths tried as adults were more likely to be physically and sexually victimized in adult institutions, and were more likely to commit additional offenses upon release to the community.

Scope and Prevalence of Juvenile Crime

Juvenile crime traditionally refers to criminal acts committed by persons under age eighteen. If one includes status offenses, such as consuming alcohol, smoking, being truant from school, running away, and violating curfews, that are crimes only because the person committing them is underage, then the majority of youth in the United States might at some point be classified as delinquent offenders! Nonstatus offenses are much less common. According to Snyder and Sickmund's 1999 report only about 5 percent of juveniles are ever arrested, and more than 90 percent of the arrests are for nonviolent crimes. Of course, arrest statistics undercount the true numbers of offenses, since an unknown number of offenses committed by juveniles go undetected. Self-report studies generally reveal higher prevalence rates; for example, among high school seniors, the annual prevalence of committing an assault with injury to the victim was 10 to 15 percent and the prevalence of robbery with a weapon was 5 percent.

Juveniles account for only about 16 percent of serious violent crimes, but nearly one-third (32%) of property crimes, according to FBI arrest statistics from the Uniform Crime Reports. Juveniles are involved in the majority (54%) of arson arrests and disproportionate numbers of vandalism (42%), motor vehicle theft (35%), and burglary (33%) arrests. Of the 2.5 million juvenile arrests in 1999, the most frequent charges were larceny-theft, simple assaults, drug abuse violations, curfew and loitering, disorderly conduct, and liquor law violations. Arrest statistics are difficult to interpret, because they do not correspond directly with the number of youth arrested or the number of crimes committed; several youths might be arrested for the same crime, a single youth might be arrested multiple times in the same year, or a youth might be arrested once, but charged with multiple offenses. Nevertheless, comparisons of adult and juvenile offenders, again as summarized by Snyder and Sickmund, indicate that juveniles are generally not predisposed to crime, and although they commit a disproportionate number of minor crimes, they are much less likely than adults, especially young adults, to commit serious violent crimes.

Crime in Schools

Highly publicized episodes of gun violence at schools raised national concern that schools were not safe environments. Homicides at school, though tragic, are fortunately quite rare. In a 2001 report, the National School Safety Center concluded that less than one percent of all juvenile homicides occur in school, and that the number of homicide deaths in schools declined from forty-two in the 1993–1994 school year to eleven in 1999–2000.

Schools are not crime-free sanctuaries, however, and crime rates in schools correlate with the crime rate of the surrounding community. A 1998 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that approximately 21 percent of high schools, 19 percent of middle schools, and 4 percent of elementary schools experienced at least one serious violent crime (primarily aggravated assaults) per year, including crimes committed by nonstudents. Nevertheless, most juvenile crime takes place in the hours immediately after school, when students are less likely to be supervised.

Property crimes are three times more prevalent than violent crimes at school (including travel to and from school). According to the National Center for Education Statistics's 1998 report on school crime and safety, approximately 12 percent of students reported thefts of their personal property in a six-month period, whereas only 4 percent reported violent crimes, defined as physical attacks or robbery with threat of violence. The annual rate of serious violent crimes (sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) at school is less than half the rate away from school.

According to noted Norwegian researcher Dan Olweus, as well as reports by the U.S. National School Safety Center, bullying is increasingly recognized as a serious and pervasive problem in schools, although it is often overlooked or disregarded by parents and teachers. Common bullying behaviors, such as pushing and shoving, verbal harassment, and threats of violence, would be regarded as crimes if they took place in an adult workplace, but often go undetected or unpunished in schools. Studies indicate that most students have been bullied at some time and that bullying is most common in the middle school grades, where more than 10 percent of students may be victims of chronic bullying.

Juvenile Offenders

There is no single profile or adequate characterization of the diverse group of youth who come to be identified as juvenile offenders. Most youths who commit crimes as juveniles desist in early adulthood, and most who come to juvenile court never return on a new referral. However, a small group of juveniles is prone to continued offending. Marvin Wolf-gang's classic 1972 study of a Philadelphia birth cohort of 10,000 boys found that about 6 percent of the boys were responsible for more than fifty percent of the crimes committed by the entire sample. Subsequent studies, summarized by Snyder and Sickmund in 1995, found that 5 to 16 percent of all referrals to juvenile court are youths with five or more arrests, and these youths account for 50 to 80 percent of all juvenile offenses.

Why do youth commit acts of violence and other crimes? Theories abound, but there is general agreement that there are multiple developmental pathways associated with different contributory factors. Youth whose onset of problem behavior begins before puberty commit more frequent and more violent crimes in adolescence, and are more likely to persist in violent offending in adulthood, than youth with later onset.

Family factors. Many factors increase the risk that a juvenile will engage in criminal or violent behavior, but no single factor is necessary or sufficient. For example, poverty and single parent family status are widely recognized risk factors, but most poor children raised by single parents in low-income homes do not become criminals. Global factors such as poverty and parent marital status are too broad to specify the precise problems in the child's family environment. A single mother working long hours for low wages may not be able to provide supervision for her children, she may be under too much stress to maintain a warm, supportive relationship with her children, and she may be inconsistent in disciplining them. In contrast, there are many examples of poor, single parents who nevertheless manage to provide excellent care for their children. Risk factors might be buffered by protective factors such as a mentoring relationship, religious convictions, special talents, or strong motivation to achieve.

More intensive studies reveal patterns of inconsistent or inappropriate parental discipline, as well as poor monitoring and supervision, in families of children who develop conduct problems. In one common pattern, parents fail to respond to their child's misbehavior, or when they do respond, it is often with excessive force or harsh emotion. Such parents tend to threaten, hit, grab, or yell to coerce children into compliance. Not surprisingly, their children then respond similarly (e.g. yelling, stomping, or hitting) when parents try to limit their behavior. The parents intermittently overlook or acquiesce to their children's misbehavior, thereby reinforcing it and rendering it even more resistive to discipline. Other important family risk factors include child abuse, exposure to domestic violence, and parental substance abuse.

Social factors. Parental influences diminish markedly in adolescence and are often superceded by peer influences. Youths who associate with delinquent peers adopt more antisocial attitudes and engage in more delinquent behavior. Youths who are unpopular with conventional peers are especially likely to seek friendships with less conventional, more antisocial youths.

As youths spend increasing amounts of time unsupervised outside the home, they become more vulnerable to the negative influence of communities characterized by a high level of social disorganization–high residential turnover, high unemployment and few job opportunities, frequent crime, drug trafficking, gang activities, and a relative lack of recreational opportunities. Youths who feel endangered in the community are more likely to carry weapons and seek protection from gang affiliation, which ironically increases the risk of involvement in violent or criminal activities. Access to handguns is particularly problematic and was linked to a threefold increase in juvenile homicide arrests from 1984 to 1993.

Adolescents are highly influenced by the entertainment industry. As noted by the 2001 Surgeon General's Report and many other authorities, more than forty years of research demonstrates that even brief exposure to film violence causes short-term increases in aggressive behavior, including physical aggression, in youth. Longitudinal studies show small but consistent correlations between childhood television viewing and young adult aggression, even after controlling for other factors such as socioeconomic status and parental discipline. The impact of violent music and video games has not been extensively studied, but early studies show similar effects. Advocates for the entertainment industry point out that many other factors influence the development of aggressive behavior, and that the link to serious violent crime is less clear.

Individual factors. Social toxins like poverty, neighborhood crime, and entertainment violence do not have the same impact on all children; individual differences in personality, temperament, and aptitude play an important role in ways not fully understood. Children with attention problems, impulsivity, and low verbal intelligence are more likely to engage in violent and criminal behavior in adolescence and adulthood. A 2001 study by Linda Teplin found that as many as two-thirds of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have one or more diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorders.

Violence and crime can be regarded fundamentally as learned behaviors, and youth involvement in such behaviors may reflect a multitude of different learning experiences. Nevertheless, children can learn alternatives to crime and violence as well. Controlled outcome studies, described in the Surgeon General's report and by Rolf Loeber and David Farrington, demonstrate that many prevention efforts–preschool family services, social competence training and structured recreational programs for at-risk children, and multisystemic family therapy or multidimensional treatment foster care for juvenile offenders–are successful and cost-effective.


FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION. 2000. Crime in the United States: 1999 Uniform Crime Reports. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

LOEBER, ROLF, and FARRINGTON, DAVID P., eds. 1998. Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 1998. Indicators of School Crime and Safety. Washington, DC: U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.

NATIONAL SCHOOL SAFETY CENTER. 1999. School Safety Update: Bullying: Peer Abuse in Schools. Westlake Village, CA: National School Safety Center.

NATIONAL SCHOOL SAFETY CENTER. 2001. School Associated Violent Deaths. Westlake Village, CA: National School Safety Center.

OLWEUS, DAN. 1993. Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. New York: Blackwell.

SNYDER, HOWARD N., and SICKMUND, MELISSA. 1995. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1995 National Report. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

SNYDER, HOWARD N., and SICKMUND, MELISSA. 1999. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

TEPLIN, LINDA. 2001. Assessing Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Disorders in Juvenile Detainees. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES. 2001. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

WOLFGANG, MARVIN E.; FIGLIO, ROBERT M.; and SELLIN, JOHAN T. 1972. Delinquency in a Birth Cohort. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



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Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation EncyclopediaJuvenile Justice System - Contemporary Juvenile Justice System And Juvenile Detention Alternatives, Juvenile Crime And Violence - HISTORY OF JUVENILE COURTS, In re Gault and the Constitution