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It's Violence by All, Not Just Teen Violence

Murders: Despite the publicity, the rash of killings isn't a trend.

August 08, 2000|FRANKLIN E. ZIMRING | Franklin E. Zimring is a professor of law at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall and author of "American Youth Violence" (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Teen killings have been front-page news all too often in Southern California. Three times in the past few weeks, we have read of horrifying deaths with teenage suspects, including a murder of four in Pico Rivera, apparently sparked by family conflict over dating rules.

Each of these killings--of two young teens in La Crescenta, of an elderly woman in Rialto, allegedly by a teenage girl, and of the Pico Rivera family--is an individual tragedy worth sustained community concern and sadness. But the succession of teen homicide stories raises broader questions as well: Do we have an epidemic of juvenile killings? What is it about teenagers today that provokes them to such senseless slaughters? What can we do to prevent our kids from becoming predators? How can we protect teenagers from being murdered?

On these general worries, the available facts are reassuring: There is no big increase in juvenile killing in California or in the nation. This generation of teens is no more homicide-prone than many other age groups in society, and younger teens are much less deadly than young adults. Finally, the most effective way to reduce teen violence is not a prevention program targeted at teens but alteration in the general social environment. American lethal violence is a problem of all age groups rather than a risk limited to adolescence.

To the extent that homicide statistics can ever be comforting, the hard data available on juvenile killings should calm citizen fears. After a nasty run-up in the late 1980s, the rate at which kids were arrested for killings in the United States fell by half between 1994 and 1996. Homicide arrests started dropping earlier in California and fell further. Between 1991 and 1998, the rate of homicide arrests of offenders under 18 fell just over 60%. The homicide rate for juveniles fell 50% further in California than for adults. The Los Angeles Police Department probably will end 2000 with about half as many juvenile homicide arrests as at the beginning of the 1990s.

Further, the types of killings now in the news are not evidence that the down trend has been reversed. It is youth gang shootings that often provoke counter-violence, not family murders or random beating deaths. And the assortment of isolated cases from July probably will not inspire "copycat" behavior by other teens in the pattern of school shootings. If the Menendez brothers and their made-for-television movie did not start a wave of family violence, neither should the Pico Rivera rampage. The run of killings this summer in Southern California are tragedies but not trends.

And it is important to understand that lethal violence in the United States is not the special province of teens. There are some crimes, such as fire-setting and auto theft, that are concentrated among very young offenders. About half of all arson arrests involve suspects under 18, and 15-year-olds are more than three times as likely as 23-year-olds to be arrested for auto theft. But the rate at which 15-year-olds commit homicide is less than half that of 23-year-olds, and offenders under 18 are responsible for only about one in 10 criminal homicides.

There is one further respect in which teen violence is best seen as part of a much larger picture. Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University and I have been comparing rates of homicide arrest over the teen years in four countries that have very different general levels of homicides: Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States. Teens account for about 10% of homicide arrests in each country, and the rate increase from age 12 through age 18 is similar also when you compare each nation's teenagers to that nation's adults. Statistically, the only reason U.S. teens commit more homicides is that the United States has higher homicide rates generally. The teenage slice of the homicide pie is no greater--it is just that the U.S. pie is so much bigger.

The best way to prevent teen violence is to change the American environment to reduce homicide risks at all ages. We should not try to fine-tune deaths from one age group. To the extent that we make the United States a less dangerous environment for everybody, the horror of teen killing will decline as well.

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