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133). In sum, low-income blacks and males continue to be responsible for a disproportionate number of juvenile homicidal acts, but juvenile homicide is not restricted to these age, ethnic or socioeconomic groups (Heckel & Shumaker, 2001).
Impact of Family Violence on Incidence of Juvenile Homicide in the U.S. And New York.
Around 14% of juvenile homicides involve family members as victims, compared to 55% that involve friends or acquaintances and 31% that involve strangers (Moeller, 2001). Therefore, approximately 66% of juvenile homicides involve an individual known by the juvenile, but not necessarily family members (Moeller, 2001). According to this author, "The large increase in murders by juveniles from 1984 to 1993 is accounted for primarily by an increase in the killings of strangers and acquaintances rather than family members" (Moeller, 2001, p. 236). Likewise, a meta-analysis of studies that examined the family background characteristics of 14 juvenile offenders condemned to death during a one-year period identified a number of common themes, including sexual abuse (five of the 14 had been sodomized by relatives), violent acts by the parents (nine of 14 had experienced such an occurrence and of the remaining five cases, three involved other notable forms of violence including extreme violence by a father who preferred hunting people to animals) (Crespi & Rigazio-Digilio, 1996).
The juveniles involved in these latter cases were reluctant to share this information, even with their defense counsel, and the parents involved were also not forthcoming in admitting any culpability because of their own criminal or immoral behaviors. "The subjects were ashamed of their parents' brutality and had tried to minimize or conceal this information. In essence, this meant the youngsters had not revealed information which could mitigate a death sentence! Moreover, the parents were unable to assist in their children's defense, largely by virtue of their own psychopathology" (p. 354). In this regard, although other researchers suggest that while there is a direct association between the incidence of family violence and juvenile homicide, through education and increased community awareness, it is possible for parents to learn what effect their behaviors are having on their children and can become partners in solving the problem. For example, as Horowitz (2000) emphasizes, "Early intervention must begin at home due to the profound effect a parent has on his or her child. Helping parents learn to be parents is not only an important step towards reducing abuse and/or neglect, it is also an important step towards reducing the number of children who kill" (p. 133).
This point was also made by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who credits such initiatives with stemming the tide of juvenile homicides in New York State: "Prevention programs that teach parents how to better supervise their children or provide more outlets for young people in the after-school hours, when most juvenile crime takes place. Prevention us 'a lot cheaper than a detention facility" (the attorney general also noted that the cost of maintaining juveniles in New York State juvenile justice facilities is approximately $80,000 a year, an amount sufficient to send three students to Harvard or Yale for a year) (quoted in Butterfield, 1996 at p. 3). Moreover, because resources are by definition scarce, it is reasonable to assume that the juvenile justice system in New York State continues to struggle with a lack of resources that can be dedicated to addressing major crimes such as juvenile homicides, a fact that will undoubtedly further contribute to juveniles in New York becoming involved in the criminal justice system in more serious ways because of a lack of early community-level intervention services. As noted above, while about two-thirds of all juvenile homicides involve someone known to the perpetrator, this means that about one-third involve complete strangers, but both trends have some profound concomitant social problems associated with them as well, and these are discussed further below.
Societal Problems Associated with Juvenile Homicide.
Although the economic costs associated with juvenile homicide are significant in terms of their adjudication in the juvenile justice system, the social impact of such criminal actions is incalculable because of the young lives lost and their potential for contributing to American society in the future along with them. Some of the social costs, though, are reflected in the national consciousness concerning young people who commit criminal acts and what should be done with them. For instance, in response to the alarming increase in the juvenile homicide rates as well as an increasing number of highly publicized school shootings, the American public is calling for stricter enforcement of existing laws and new legislation that will turn the tide. As Horowitz (2000), emphasize, "In the days after the Jonesboro, Arkansas, shootings in March 1998, an opinion poll revealed that about half the adults in America believed that the two boys who shot their classmates should receive the death penalty" (the juveniles responsible for those homicides were aged 13 and 11 years) (p. 133).
While the death penalty may be clearly inappropriate in some cases, it would seem apparent that one of the fundamental societal problems associated with juvenile homicide relates to the "culture of fear" that it promotes among the general public, but especially among parents and young people who may feel that home schooling or a virtual school is just a good idea in this environment. According to Horowitz (2000), more and more Americans are favoring harsher punishments up to and including the death penalty for younger and younger juvenile offenders that commit homicidal acts: "Facing strong, punishment-oriented constituencies, legislators and prosecutors are seeking to impose the death penalty on younger and younger offenders, both through the legislation they propose and the punishments they seek in trial" (p. 133). Clearly, no lawmaker wants to appear "soft" on crime, but Horowitz (2000) emphasizes that Supreme Court constitutional requirements state that offenders must be at least sixteen before they can receive capital punishment. Nevertheless, in response to the increase in juvenile homicides in the 1970s, lawmakers in New York State enacted the 1978 New York State Juvenile Offender Act. According to Jensen and Howard (1998), "In the late 1970s, legislators responded quickly to several highly-publicized murders committed by juveniles in New York City by increasing punitive sanctions for serious juvenile offenders. In the late 1970s, public opinion in New York favored a punitive response to serious youth crime and the Juvenile Offender Act reflected these sentiments" (p. 324).
The research showed that there is some good news and bad news when it comes to juvenile homicides in the United States. The good news was that after peaking in the 1990s, the incidence of juvenile homicides has been on the decline. The bad news was that an unacceptable number of American youths become caught up in the criminal justice system as a result of their taking another's life because of a wide range of factors that were shown to include low socioeconomic conditions, a history of family violence, gang activity, substance abuse and the unpredictable nature of the developmental phases these young people are experiencing. In the final analysis, it is reasonable to conclude that as more is learned about the specific contributing factors, it may be possible to develop more effective interventions for these young people to help them avoid the life-scarring episodes that result from juvenile homicides, but given the violent nature of American society in general and the celebration of violence in the popular media, it is unlikely that juveniles are simply going to stop killing because of such formal approaches.
Bender, L., & Curran, F.J. (1940). Children and adolescents who kill. Journal of Criminal Psychopathology, 1, 297-322.
Black's law dictionary. (1991). St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co.
Butterfield, F. (1996, August 9). After a decade, juvenile crime begins to drop. New York Times, 3-4.
Crespi, T.D., & Rigazio-Digilio, S.A. (1996). Adolescent homicide and family pathology: Implications for research and treatment with adolescents. Adolescence, 31(122), 353.
Heckel, R.V., & Shumaker, D.M. (2001). Children who murder: A psychological perspective.…[continue]
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