WASHINGTON, DC – Over the past few months, headlines describing crimes perpetrated by children and teenagers have been splashed atop stories all over the Internet.
In mid-July, the Chicago Tribune reported about several teenagers who fatally assaulted a 62-year-old man on camera. Malik Jones, 16, Nicholas Ayala, 17, and Anthony Malcolm, 18, then posted the cell phone video of their crime to Facebook.
Earlier that month, a 12-year-old boy from Fort Washington, Md., was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in a juvenile court for beating a 2-year-old foster child to death. The infant, Aniyah Batchelor, was reportedly living with the boy’s family at the time of the murder, according to The Washington Post.
In fact, accounts of child-perpetrated depravity seem to be as numerous as they are shocking – from the 10-year-old girl in Maine charged with murdering 3-month-old Brooklyn Foss-Greenaway, to the 12-year-old boy accused of raping a 5-year-old girl in an Ohio McDonald’s Playland.
And incidents of crimes perpetrated by children and teenagers will always garner the continued attention of news outlets the world over. Proof of that fact lies in the high-profile nature of criminal cases such as Erik and Lyle Menendez, Eric Smith, Joshua Phillips or Robert Thompson and Jon Venables.
However, statistics offered by the Office of Justice Programs belie the notion of a new youth crime wave. They claim that the juvenile arrest rate hit its peak in 1996, a rate which reportedly declined 36 percent by 2009.
Is the frequency of youth-perpetrated crimes increasing with the passage of time, as we continue to see an increase in news stories on them? Or are we, as a society, simply paying more attention to such incidents as information becomes easier to access?
One study shows that some areas of the nation did, in fact, experience an increase in youth crime.
“In the years after 2000, reports from some U.S. cities indicated a resurgence of urban-based severe and lethal violence by juveniles and young adults,” the federally funded report noted. “National statistics document a change in violence and use of firearms among that group as well.”
According to the experts, however, the perceived spike could be directly attributed to our society’s ability to consume news online.
“I think given the Internet and information age we live in, the awareness of crimes has increased, so when a relatively sensational event happens in some corner of the country, everyone has immediate access to it. This hasn’t always been the case,” Dr. Jeffrey Walsh, an associate professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University, told CBSDC. “We are more [likely] to hear about the bullying related suicides, the youth who killed a neighbor or classmate … and since youth crimes are more shocking than adult crimes, given cultural expectations of youthful innocence, word travels fast.”
But while the sensational nature of child and teen crimes may create a hyper-awareness sometimes mistaken for an influx of incidents, the crimes are still all too real – and for a myriad of reasons.
Susan Burke, who presently serves as vice president for the American Probation and Parole Association, said that there is “no single, driving factor.”
“As a result, there is no single solution to preventing future delinquency,” Burke told CBSDC. “The solution lies in developing an individualized response for each youth.”
Both Walsh and Burke emphasized the importance of nuanced responses, community involvement, stability in the home and effective parenting in the prevention of youth and teen crime.
“A multi-systemic and community-wide response is necessary,” Burke said. “What that means is multiple ‘systems’ must be involved in efforts to reach at-risk and troubled youths early, engage them in positive activities and connect them to positive role models/mentors, teach them pro-social skills, and maintain supports for them throughout their adolescent years and through young adulthood … [including] families, schools, social service agencies, religious organizations, law enforcement, justice system personnel, treatment organizations, and other community based organizations aimed at positive youth development.”
“[Prevention] is largely dependent on which explanation for youth violence you subscribe to but following along the lines of socializing influences as a source of youth crime and violence, one approach involves creating holistically healthy environments for youth to learn and thrive in,” Walsh also noted. “This includes healthy stable homes with [nurturing] and guidance, attentive educational institutions reinforcing positive … lessons from home. If families, schools, and communities are engaged and coordinate their efforts then prevention should not be difficult.”
Added Burke, “I always tell parents to keep the lines of communication open with their child. Know their child’s friends and the parents of those friends. Monitor their child’s activities at school, at home, in the community, and on-line. Set clear expectations for them and clear consequences for problem behaviors. Praise, praise, praise frequently and at every opportunity.”