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School Shootings as a Natural Escalation of Less Lethal, Juvenile Violence
The issue of youth violence is one very much in the news since the Columbine High School shootings and the other incidents of schoolyard violence that have occurred with grisly regularity over the last several years. But while such shooting sprees are perhaps the most striking example of people under the age of 18 intentionally committing violent acts against other people, Columbine and other school shootings are in fact only a very small element of the overall picture of juvenile violence. Indeed, both these school shootings and other, more common acts violence by young people can be seen as merely the natural development of other kinds of less lethal juvenile violence.
Whenever we hear on the news about another crime committed by another juvenile - often a child who seems barely old enough to make their own after-school snacks -- it is tempting to ask, "Where were the parents? Why didn't they stop this?"
But the problem of youth violence extends beyond an attempt to assign blame to the parents or in applying ever-harsher legal penalties to young offenders. It requires a holistic approach to the subject. This paper considers three levels of response to the problem of youth violence, which has been addressed legislatively, judicially and administratively.
While many people have argued that parents should be responsible for any act committed by their children, others have argued that this would a fundamental change in our legal conception of the idea of responsibility and agency and that (especially in the case of older children) parents are only responsible for their own actions, not those of their children. Therefore a parent who was abusive to a child who then committed a crime (that psychologists believed to be linked to the abuse) could be charged with the abuse itself but not with the crime that the child had committed.
It may be useful to begin with some basic definitions. Under American law (and this is an inheritance from English common law), a crime is an illegal act committed by a person who has criminal intent. A long-standing presumption in the United States (as well in most other Western nations) has been that, although a person of almost any age can commit a criminal act, children under 14 years old were unlikely to have criminal intent. (Another way of looking at this is to say that children under the age of 14 may not understand the consequences of their actions or may not be able to distinguish in a fully realized way good from evil or both. Thus while they might steal, for example, this is not the same thing legally as committing theft, which requires the intent of taking depriving someone else of their rights to an object.) (Lawson, 1994, p. 23).
Many juvenile courts have now discarded this so-called infancy defense and have found that delinquent acts can be committed by children of any age. This reflects less a change in the understanding of child psychology, however, than it does a change in cultural and social ideas about criminal agency (http://220.127.116.11/LegisGame/g7/issues/A10.htm).
The creation in the late 19th century of a separate justice system for youths reflected a combined legislative, judicial and administrative response to the need that society felt for punishing youths - but not too much. So many offenders were juveniles that it was believed that some system must be established to deal with their unique needs and to help them from becoming lifetime criminals.
Jurisdiction over criminal acts by children was transferred from adult courts to the newly created juvenile courts in 1889. One of the principal reasons for the new system was to avoid the harsh treatment previously imposed on delinquent. Official U.S. crime reports in the 1980s showed that about one-fifth of all persons arrested for crimes are under 18 years of age. In the 1970s, juvenile arrests increased in almost every serious crime category, and female juvenile crime more than doubled (http://18.104.22.168/LegisGame/g7/issues/A10.htm)
However, although the idea of a juvenile criminal made sense to many, over a number of years it became clear that the current model was not working and that young people were not being deterred from committing crimes - including violent crimes. The statistics rise and fall for juvenile crime rates, but the number of youths who commit violate crimes remains shockingly high. And the crimes committed by the most violent youths are becoming increasingly violent.
In the early 1990s, the overall crime rate fell, even as the number of crimes committed by juveniles continued to rise. But the juvenile arrest rate for violent crime in 1996 dropped 9% from 1995 and 12% from 1994, marking the second year of decline after steady increases since 1990. In addition, the juvenile arrest rate for murder dropped 31% from 1993 to 1996, marking the lowest since 1989.
Despite this good news, young people still commit around 9% of murders each year. Especially disquieting is incidence of very young juvenile offenders, although their numbers have also decreased in the past three years (http://22.214.171.124/LegisGame/g7/issues/A10.htm).
The following article, from March 1998, is yet one more of many more legislative attempts to mandate when juveniles must be tried as adults, thereby giving legislators a much greater say (vis-a-vis) than they once had in the treatment of minors:
In Tennessee, Missouri or Mississippi, one or both boys accused of a shooting rampage Tuesday near Jonesboro could have been charged as adults with capital murder.
But Arkansas law sets a minimum age of 14 for such charges.
Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, are accused of fatally shooting four girls and a teacher and injuring nine other students and a teacher at Westside Middle School. They have been charged as juveniles and will likely be released from custody when they are 18 or 21.
That would have been the case in Tennessee before 1994.
Tennessee changed its law then so that juveniles accused of such violent crimes as first-degree and second-degree murder and aggravated rape can be tried as adults regardless of their age (http://www.ardemgaz.com/prev/jonesboro/aiother29.html).
The effect of such get-tough laws may or may not produce a long-term reduction in the rate of youth crime. One thing that is clear about them, however, is that they do not seem to be applied fairly:
Juveniles accused of serious crime are far more likely to be tried as adults in California if they are not white, according to a study released Wednesday by a San Francisco-based juvenile justice reform group.
Odds of kid crooks going to the California Youth Authority also increase if they are Latino, African-American or Asian-American, the Justice Policy Institute study found.
It is horrifying and outrageous and absolutely unacceptable that our children are being subjected to such discriminatory treatment," said Anamaria Loya of La Raza Centro Legal at a Capitol press conference (http://classic.sacbee.com).
However, even as the public opinion has lately swung in the direction of harsher penalties for youth offenders and as state legislatures and the judicial system have rushed to create new laws and new sentencing procedures that ensure such a harsher treatment, there has begun to be something of a backlash against such a degree of harshness.
This can be seen in the administrative responses to violent juvenile offenders. While the intent of much recent legislative and judicial actions has been to punish youths, at least some administrative responses can be seen to be more interested in rehabilitation. Indeed, we may well see in the relatively near future a return on the part of state legislatures and judges (as well as in public opinion) to a more moderate, more rehabilitation oriented framework for dealing with violent youth offenders.
We see such an administrative bent toward punishment combined with reform rather than punishment alone in an institution like the California Youth Authority.
California Youth Authority facilities are designed to provide essential services to each youthful offender through three components - Daily Living Skills, Counseling, and Academic/Vocational/Work Experience. The CYA Education Program operates 12 months a year, enabling a student who has fallen behind academically the opportunity to catch up. A wide variety of vocational programs and work assignments are available to teach relevant skills that are transferable to community employment. These work assignments also provide an emphasis on improvement of attitude and behaviors that have previously impeded employment success (http://www.cya.ca.gov/).
While in the CYA, an individual may obtain the following: high school credits/requirements for graduation; a high school diploma; college course work for an Associate of Arts (AA) Degree; a General Educational Development Certificate (GED); a High School Equivalency Certificate; or work experience. The following Special Education Services are also available: remedial Education (ESEA); special education for individuals with exceptional needs; English as a Second Language education (http:www.cya.ca.gov/).
When California became a state in 1850 there was no juvenile correctional system, and serious young offenders were sent to state prison. In 1859 the first reform school, the San Francisco Industrial School, was opened for…[continue]
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