Journal Issue: Critical Health Issues for Children and Youth Volume 4 Number 3 Winter 1994
The violent behavior of adolescents in our society is a topic of enormous interest and concern, limited data and knowledge, and, unfortunately, substantial misinformation and distortion. In 1990, some 16.3% (1,749,343) of the total number of arrests in the United States were of youth 17 years of age or younger, and 5.5% (95,677) of these arrests were for violent crimes. Of incarcerated youth (fewer than 100,000 of all prisoners), about one quarter have committed crimes against persons. Although the overall magnitude of this problem is often distorted by the media, these numbers, which have increased over the past decade, do mask the substantially higher rates in extremely poor, populous urban communities. In addition, on a national survey, about 20% of adolescents reported having engaged in one violent incident by 18 years of age. Other youths are the predominant victims of violent behavior by adolescents.
Many environmental, psychologic, and biologic risk and protective factors and population indicators have been related to violent behavior and, in various combinations, increase or decrease the likelihood of its occurrence. However, no one theory or combination of variables allows prediction of which individuals will commit violent acts or what interventions will prevent these acts initially or reduce the incidence of repeated offenses. Few, if any, of the individual therapeutic techniques, promising state or community-based programs, or traditional law enforcement and judicial approaches have been adequately evaluated to determine whether they are effective in reducing violent incidents in schools and neighborhoods. The juvenile courts have become increasingly punitive, more youths are being transferred to adult criminal courts, and increasing numbers of adolescents are being incarcerated at a national average cost of about $35,000 per youth per year. Nevertheless, despite our lack of certainty about what will work to decrease violence among youth, we do know enough to take a number of practical steps that are likely to ameliorate the situation. These include a combination of activities directed toward improving the quality of life in areas of extreme poverty in large cities, and reforming the juvenile justice system.