During these past few weeks we have unfortunately seen high-profile violent killings committed by young people. On October 15th, a ten year old boy was arrested for killing a 90 year old woman in Pennsylvania, and after making a chilling confession, he is now being held in the Wayne County Correctional facility, though separated from adult offenders. He will also be charged as an adult, which despite his age, is allowable according to Pennsylvania law.
In North Carolina, a 15 year old was charged with killing his grandfather on October 19th. Too young, too violent and incredibly too close in timeframe. Both cases didn’t appear random, and the victims were close to the young defendants. Such violent episodes, though not tolerable for any age, often begs for the proverbial question, “why do young people kill”?
Was there abuse, mistreatment, neglect, or just a random lack of empathy or compassion for another person that transformed these young people into child killers? Now, despite the media reports, violent crime has been on a decline according the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
In a study conducted by the CDC studying homicide rates for persons 10-24 years of age, showed that violent crime for this demographic was at 7.5%, a 30 year low. More importantly, the latter part of that age group (20-24), proved to be higher than the younger members of the sample. The researchers further expanded on continued disproportionate numbers for African-American males (committing violent acts as well as being victims themselves) compared to their Latino and Caucasian counterparts.
So what is the root cause of such violence? Despite low numbers statistically, how is the public to respond when we see children committing the most violent of crimes? Is it sociological, psychological, environmental, or just plain disregard? Are children not able to cope, or communicate their frustration, hence, violence is the preferred method of release? Is society more violent today than in previous years? Dr. Michael M. Sinclair, an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has worked with disadvantaged youth and gangs for over twenty years, provided some insight:
“It is not solely psychological or sociologically. Our children are being exposed to gratuitous violence in video games, music, movies and television. Without the support of “effective parents” our youth remain vulnerable to images of violence and are desensitized. They often equate power with violence; additionally they may be exposed to violence in their homes and community. This as many behavioral learning theorists posit, can have an overwhelming effect (traumatic events). Finally, without early intervention, in which many of youth doesn’t often receive, juvenile justice and the court system becomes the option, hence, punishment over rehabilitation.”
In my book, “Delinquency, Pop Culture and Generation Why”, I also discussed popular culture’s influence on young people. Where we are seeing more and more violent games, music, and music videos being created, children at times have a difficult time separating such fantasy from reality. Further, without engaged parents or guardians to offer explanations to these types of influences, children are often left to figure it out alone, unfortunately, maybe after it’s too late. Granted that doesn’t condone any lack of culpability for violent acts, particularly by young people, but it does provide some contextual explanations as to why some do indeed become more violent today as opposed to prior years.
So then the question once again is raised, is our judicial system, specifically, the juvenile courts, equipped enough to handle violent young offenders, or should we allow them to be waived to the adult system? All 50 states and the District of Columbia have waiver statues, varying among requirements. The efficacy in application continues to be debated among researchers and practitioners, particularly on who gets waived. Does waiving really deter future delinquency or criminality or is it a quick fix to address societal reactions to violent crimes committed by juveniles? Wasn’t the system created to offer rehabilitation while holding young people accountable?
A representative in Juvenile Court (NC) stated that “despite its efforts, the state is not doing enough on the front end to thwart juvenile crime, particularly violent crime. She further expanded on how parents continue to absolve their roles when juveniles are adjudicated in the juvenile justice system.” Without their support, juveniles don’t receive the proper support or reinforcement at home and often reoffend. As a practitioner, she felt that sending juveniles to adult prisons is still not the answer, even for violent juveniles. As the juvenile court was created to hold accountable and rehabilitate, she feels that should always be the primary consideration in dealing with young violent offenders.
If statistics convey that violent crime is down for young people, does this affect policy or agendas in supporting early intervention or rehabilitation. Do we have enough mechanisms in place to identify violent children early on? Do certain children receive more alternatives to punishment or placement then others? Particularly as we continue to see an enormous disparity in African-American and Latino placements compared to Caucasian youths. Or does classism afford the more wealthy alternatives to placement, compared to punishment. This issue is not exclusive to the juvenile justice system, as we also see it with adult offenders as well.
In the end, I’ve always conveyed to my students to first remove the emotion out of decision-making and secondly to figure out the “whys”. As a society we continue to arrest, lock up, and punish well. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States are number one in the world in housing inmates which is not a flattering statistic. Imagine if we invested just as much time, energy and resources in locking up as we did in early interventions, how different the correctional system would look. We continue to falter at being proactive, especially in dealing with young people. Some of the obvious behavioral cues often displayed are overlooked in elementary and middle schools.
We fail to see the “whys” and respond to the “hows”. Should we lock up all violent children, the answer is not that simple without knowing all the circumstances? One thing is clear, if we are not concerned with why these young people are committing these offenses and more willing to “lock them up”, then we will continue to see such violence from young people and eventually as adult offenders.
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