Today's juveniles doesn't commit more acts of violence than a generation ago, but more juveniles are violent

New study explores changing nature of juvenile violence

In recent years social commentators have proposed that juveniles have changed, with society facing a new breed of violent predators. Used as evidence for this conclusion is the disturbing growth in juvenile violent crime arrests between the mid-1980's and the mid-1990's. If there is a new breed of violent juvenile offenders, they should be apparent in the official records of the juvenile justice systems, especially in large cities.


To explore this notion, Snyder studied the officially recognized delinquent careers of more than 151,000 juveniles who turned 18 years of age between 1980 and 1995, using the court records from a major urban area in the United States -- Maricopa County, Arizona, which contains Phoenix. In this county, policy requires all arrestees under age 18 be referred to juvenile court for processing. Therefore, the court records contain all the officially recognized delinquent behavior of each youth.

If youth are changing, differences should be apparent in the number and types of offenses found in the juvenile court careers of those who graduated (i.e., turned 18) in 1980 and the more recent graduate.

Study finds more juveniles committing violent acts, not juveniles who are more violent

In many ways, the officially recognized law-violating careers were similar across the 16 graduating classes that turned 18 years of age between 1980 and 1995. Across the classes, the average age of first delinquency referral was 15.2 years; 26% of court careers began before age 14. The average age of first violent referral was 15.8 years and 1% of referred youth had a first violent offense referral before age 14.

On other characteristics, the most recent graduates differed. A greater proportion of the resident youth population was referred to juvenile court for a delinquent offense in the later classes. Compared with the graduating class of 1980, a smaller proportion of court-involved youth who turned 18 in 1995 had only one court referral (56% versus 62%). Youth who turned 18 in the mid-1990's had on average more delinquent referrals in their careers.

A greater proportion of recent court graduates also had a violent offense referral (i.e., between 6% and 8% in the 1980's and 11% in the mid-1990s). However, the number of violent referrals in each career did not change across the graduating classes. Most youth (83%) charged with a violent crime had only one violent referral in their career. That is, across all graduating classes, 5 in 6 youth charged with a violent offense were never referred again for another violent charge. If juveniles are changing, if they are more violent, the court records should show an increase in the proportion of violent offenders with multiple violent referrals in their careers. This was not found.

While we know that some acts of juvenile violence have become more lethal, as the doubling of the juvenile arrest rate for murder between 1985 and 1995 and the increase in the use of guns by juvenile offenders clearly demonstrates, this study indicates that the frequency of an individual's acts of violence has not increased. Today's violent youth commits the same number of violent acts as his/her predecessor of 15 years ago. What is different is that a greater proportion of juveniles are committing violent acts. The question for policy makers is "Why are some kids committing violent acts today who would not have done so 15 years ago?"


Today's chronic offenders are similar to those of the 1980's

Juvenile policymakers have been actively concerned since the mid-1970's with the chronic offender, that small portion of system-involved youth who are responsible for the majority of serious crimes committed. Snyder found that 15% of system-involved youth had four or more delinquency referrals before their 18th birthday and were responsible for 59% of the class' serious referrals.

The proportion of each graduating class that was composed of chronic offenders (those with four or more referrals) remained constant throughout the classes of the 1980's, averaging 13% of all graduating class members. The classes of the early 1990's, however, displayed an abrupt increase in their chronic offender proportions, averaging 17% of the careers in the 1992 through 1995 graduating classes. As a result, chronic offenders in the graduating classes of the 1990's were involved in a greater proportion of referrals in all offense categories.

Although the number and proportion of chronic careers grew over the cohorts, it is important to realize that the nature of the individual chronic career remained the same. Over the 16 graduating classes, chronic offenders averaged 6.6 referrals in their juvenile court career, were referred for 4.2 nonserious offenses, 2.0 serious-nonviolent offenses, and 0.4 violent offenses. In all, official records show that the more recent graduating classes contained more chronic offenders (not more active, more serious, or more violent) and that these chronic offenders were generally responsible for a greater proportion of all types of offenses.

Previous Contents Next

Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1997 Update on Violence