Is There a Youth Violence Epidemic?

Shocking murders committed by young children in the past year have generated a great deal of concern about a possible epidemic of violence. In a new report, American Youth Violence, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Berkeley professor Franklin Zimring concludes that youth crime is not increasing, and that punitive public policies are based on fears rather than facts.

According to Zimring, who has written many articles and books on violence, virtually every state has enacted laws designed to cope with a crime epidemic that does not exist. He is especially concerned about laws that lower the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults, and other “half-baked” policy proposals. He discusses the importance of weighing the seriousness of the crimes against the immaturity and diminished responsibility of children.

The report quotes widely publicized estimates of dramatic increases in crime rates, and explains how they are based on misleading statistics. For example, comparisons between current crime rates and 1984 are misleading, because crime rates were especially low in 1984. He also points out that many estimates of a future crime epidemic are based on the growing number of children under 17 in the U.S., but since at any given time many of those children are infants, toddlers, and elementary school children that are too young to commit serious crimes, the upcoming “baby boom” will not increase crime rates as dramatically as some experts have predicted.

The report concludes that there is no clear pattern for youth arrests for violent crime from 1980-96. For example, robbery decreased 21 percent and homicide increased 34 percent. Rape also decreased, to its lowest rate since 1977. Although aggravated assault increased a startling 56 percent, there have been changes in the way that assaults are classified, thus causing that apparently dramatic increase. Zimring believes that all these rates are volatile and there are no clear trends, since it is rare for arrest rates to go in the same direction for more than 3 consecutive years. For example, homicide rates have increased or decreased by 15-20 percent numerous times in recent years.

Nevertheless, the increase in youths committing homicides is of great concern to policy makers and the public. Zimring points out that there in no increase in homicides using weapons other than guns, and that the 34 percent increase is due entirely to “hardware” — the increase in fatal attacks with firearms. Zimring attempts to be reassuring when he points out that these findings indicate that youth aren’t more vicious than before, they just are better armed. However, an alternate way of looking at these statistics would be to wonder why nongun homicides aren’t being replaced by homicides committed with guns – instead, the guns are adding to the overall number of homicides. Whether these children are a “violent new breed” or merely a larger, better armed breed makes little difference to those of us who want to feel safe and want our children to be safe.

Zimring also points out that very few young children commit homicides, but the numbers he cites may be higher than most readers expect: two homicide arrests for every 100,000 12-year olds, two for every 100,000 13-year olds, nine for every 100,000 at 14-year olds, and 15 for every 100,000 15-year-old.

In his policy analysis, Zimring criticizes conservatives for overstating the problems regarding youth violence, and some liberals for packaging social policies and nurturing programs that could help all youth as “crime prevention.” Both label children as a problem, and the latter also stigmatizes social programs. Instead, Zimring recommends that our nation support programs that are helpful to all youth because we care about our children, and develop other kinds of strategies, such as minimum age requirements for gun ownership, designed specifically to prevent youth crime.

On the other side of the debate, there is frightening evidence that young children are carrying guns to school. A study of more than 2000 students enrolled in 53 randomly selected middle schools in North Carolina, found that 3 percent reported ever carrying a gun to school and 14 percent had ever carried a knife or club to school for protection. This study, by Robert DuRant and his colleagues, was published in the January 1999 issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

Some of the same students carried guns and other weapons, but overall these results are surprisingly similar to findings of two studies of children attending predominantly low-income, minority middle schools: one found 19 percent had ever carried a weapon to school and the other found 17 percent had carried a weapon during the previous year. A study of Illinois 7-8th graders found that 15 percent had carried a weapon during the previous month.

DuRant found that students who carried weapons to school were usually boys, older, and more likely to use alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes than those who did not carry weapons. Students who carried guns were also more likely to have used cocaine, to be from ethnic minorities, and to live with one parent. Even when statistically controlling for ethnicity and sex, those who carried guns tended to smoke and use alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine more frequently. The link between daily smoking and weapons was especially strong: students who smoked every day were eight times more likely to report carrying a gun to school and seven times more likely to report carrying a knife or club to school.

Before getting bogged down in statistics, let’s remember that middle school students are 11, 12, 13 and 14 years old! The study clearly shows that parents, teachers, and others involved with these young children need to ask them about weapons, their own and their classmates. Asking children who smoke whether they carry a weapon, and checking to make sure they don’t, could help prevent violence among school children.

These articles are based on Diana Zuckerman’s monthly Research Watch columns that appeared in Youth Today in issues from November 1999 through November 2004, and were reprinted with permission. Youth Today is a publication of the American Youth Work Center, 1200 17th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. (800) 599-2455.