Is youth violence on the upswing?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher issue on "Youth Violence" by Thomas J. Billitteri, March 5, 2010:

To read the news in recent months it would be easy to think the nation is in the grip of a new youth crime wave. In Patchogue, on Long Island, seven teens were charged in a fatal assault on an Ecuadorian immigrant, and prosecutors alleged a pattern of teen violence against Hispanics in the area. [Footnote 15] In Texas, two young men, 19 and 21, were charged with a church fire, and authorities said they may face charges in nine others. [Footnote 16]

But Barry Krisberg, former president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and now a distinguished senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, law school, says youth crime “is way down from the peak in the middle 1990s.” Since then, he adds, “it leveled off a little bit, and the latest numbers suggest it's down again. There's hardly a surge of it at any level.”

In testimony last year to a congressional hearing, Krisberg said much of the public's perception of rising youth crime is based on the way news outlets report on crime.

A study conducted in Dallas, Washington, D.C., and San Mateo County, Calif., found that the media consistently reported increases in juvenile crime — if they were short-term increases — but not crime decreases, he said. In addition, Krisberg said, the media consistently attributed most of the violence problems to youth whereas most violence was committed by young adults. And, he said, the media often failed to offer context: “They don't do a good job of answering the ‘why’ questions.” [Footnote 17]

The relentless airing of incidents over the Internet has only heightened the public's view that youth crime is surging.

Still, in some cities, and in some neighborhoods, perception and reality can be one.

“These [aggregate crime] data are numbers from all over the country put into a blender, and in some communities the levels are very low, and in other communities they are crazy high,” says Melissa Sickmund, chief of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. “You can't go into a community that's experiencing a real problem in their world, on their streets, with their kids ending up dead or their kids ending up behind bars because they committed these crimes, and tell them nationally stuff is down, it's not a problem.”

In Pittsburgh, an informal survey of students ages 9 to 18 in urban neighborhoods found that almost 80 percent have had family members or friends wounded or killed by gun violence. [Footnote 18] In South Philadelphia, parents, teachers and activists testified recently at a public hearing on school violence in the wake of several highly publicized incidents, including the fatal shooting of a high school football star.[Footnote 19]

Jeffrey Butts, a criminologist who this spring will become executive director of the Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, points out that while aggregate youth crime has not been going up nationally, it can seem that way. Crime, he says, is “very local,” meaning crime rates may vary among neighborhoods a few blocks from each other.

“If you're living in a poor, disadvantaged neighborhood with no infrastructure and lots of gang activity, it can seem that [crime] has gotten lots worse in the last couple of years,” he says. Criminologists are only now developing reliable techniques to measure crime trends at the neighborhood level, he says.

Butts says violent youth crime generally has been fluctuating in a narrow range near what may turn out to be the bottom of a trough formed over the last dozen or so years. While youth crime is “not going up” he says, “I can't imagine it will go down a whole lot more, especially given what's going on in the economy.”

Whatever the direction of overall trends, youth violence continues to plague pockets of many big cities, with minorities often the heaviest victims. “There remains an extraordinary and unconscionable persistent problem of extremely high violent criminal victimization,” says Kennedy of John Jay College. “This is peer-on-peer stuff…. It's extremely densely concentrated among young black men in particular neighborhoods.”

The crime is typically perpetrated by what Kennedy calls “a very small population of high-rate offenders involved in high-rate-offending groups like gangs, drug crews, neighborhood sets, and so on…. Most of the serious violent crime in these communities is perpetrated by members of these standout groups.”

In Cincinnati, where an Operation Ceasefire program is under way, “there are about 60 of these identifiable offending groups, and they have a totality of about 1,500 people in them,” Kennedy says. “They are associated — as victims, offenders or both — with 75 percent of all the killings in Cincinnati. Those identified by name — and therefore open to criminal-history background checks — average 35 prior charges apiece.” Still, Kennedy points out, those 1,500 and all the groups associated with the killings represent a tiny fraction of the metro area's overall population.

Fox, the Northeastern University criminologist, says that in updating his study on homicides and gun killings among black youth, he found an improvement in the latest data, for 2008. Still, he says, “I don't think it changes the overall argument and overall findings that this plummeting crime rate we've been seeing in this country is not across the board and that we still have rates among certain segments, particularly young black males, that remain elevated.

“These things can vacillate from year to year. Unless we see these numbers go down for several more years, I'm still very concerned about what's happening among some Americans in some cities. And I'm concerned that there's very little attention paid toward it because overall things are better.”

The Issues

  • Is youth violence on the upswing?
  • Are minority youths singled out for arrest and detention?
  • Are “get tough” policies the best approach for fighting youth crime?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Youth Violence" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.

[15] Anne Barnard, “Youth Charged With More Attacks on Latinos,” The New York Times, Jan. 29, 2009,

[16] Derrick Henry, “2 Men Charged in Texas Church Fire,” The New York Times, Feb. 21, 2010,

[17] Testimony before House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, Feb. 11, 2009,

[18] Sally Kalson, “Survey finds gun violence affects youth,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 20, 2010, The written survey of 455 students was a project of the Metro-Urban Institute of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and several other organizations.

[19] Dafney Tales, “Violence has students attending in fear,” Philadelphia Daily News, Jan. 29, 2010.