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Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States

What Caused the Increase?

Juveniles and Murder

    While only a small minority of juveniles living in specific geographic areas are responsible for most of the juvenile violence in the Nation, there is no doubt that, on the whole, the problem of juvenile violence increased significantly in the past decade. What changed during the intervening years is what one noted researcher calls the "age-specific patterns for murder."7 Basically, while the murder rates remained stable or declined among older people in the decade following 1985, they climbed for younger people. The number of juvenile homicide offenders doubled between 1980 and 1994. During this period, the juvenile responsibility for homicide in the country grew, based on FBI clearance statistics, from 5 percent to 10 percent of all homicides in the United States.8

Anatomy of Violence

The increase in juvenile violence began in 1985 as the use of cocaine in inner cities began to reach epidemic proportions. According to Alfred Blumstein, the J. Erik Johnson University Professor of Urban Systems and Operations Research at Carnegie Mellon University (Pennsylvania) and director of the National Consortium on Violence Research, the increase was the result of the interrelationship -- or "deadly nexus" -- of several factors: drugs, guns, and juveniles.

Under Blumstein's theory, the expansion of the crack cocaine market led to drug traffickers recruiting children and teenagers as low-level sellers, carriers, and lookouts. Juveniles were recruited partly because they worked for less, took greater chances, and were more likely to escape detection and punishment.

Juveniles involved in drug trafficking carried guns because they were unable to rely on police for protection. As more juveniles were recruited by drug traffickers, firearms proliferated among inner-city gangs engaged in turf and drug market battles. This in turn persuaded other juveniles, who may not have been involved with the drug industry, to carry guns for self-protection and also as a status symbol.

  Thus, as more guns appeared in the community, the incentive for individuals to arm themselves increased, creating what Blumstein refers to as a "local arms race."9

      Data on the number of firearm-related homicides appear to support Blumstein's theory. In 1976, less than two-thirds of juvenile homicide offenders used a gun; by 1991, more than three-quarters killed with a gun;10 in 1994, 82 percent used a gun.11 Since 1980, the murder arrest rate has declined slightly for adults and increased markedly for juveniles, regardless of race. But between 1985 and 1992, the drug arrest rate for juveniles climbed only for nonwhites.12 Blumstein offers a simple explanation for this disparity:

. . . [T]he apparent absence of significant involvement of white juveniles in the drug markets during this time has not insulated them from the growth of their involvement in homicide, possibly through the suggested process of the diffusion of guns from drug sellers into the larger community. When the arrest trends of young nonwhites for homicide and drug offenses are compared, it is evident that both rates climbed together from 1985 to 1989, suggesting the relationship between the two. The drug arrest rate declined somewhat after 1989. There was a flattening out, but no corresponding decline, in the murder arrest rate. In other words, the continued high rate of murder arrests seems to demonstrate that, once guns are diffused into the community, they are much more difficult to purge.

Only by stopping the "diffusion" of firearms, Blumstein says, will the Nation lower the incidence of violent crime committed by juveniles.


7. Alfred Blumstein, Violence by Young People: Why the Deadly Nexus?, U.S. Dep't of Justice National Institute of Justice Journal, Aug. 1995, at 3.

8. Update, supra note 1, at 18.

9. Blumstein, supra note 7, at 6.

10. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Dep't of Justice, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A Focus on Violence iv (1995).

11. Update, supra note 1, at 24.

12. Blumstein, supra note 7, at 7, 8.


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