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Report on Juvenile Crime Brings Calls for New Policies

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A new report that chronicles a sharp increase in juvenile violent crime over the past decade is a wake-up call to the nation that current policies have not worked to stem violence among young people, education leaders and child advocates said last week.

Juvenile arrests for murder and other violent crimes soared over the past decade, fueled in part by the increasing availability of guns and drugs, according to the report by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Department officials said the 188-page report is the most comprehensive compilation of data on youth offenders and victims to date.

Law-enforcement agencies made 129,600 juvenile arrests for violent crimes in 1992, a 55 percent increase from 1983, when there were 83,400 arrests.

And while the overall murder rate declined during the late 1980s, the number of juveniles charged with murder more than doubled, from 969 in 1984 to 2,202 in 1991.

"We can only hope that thoughtful people will look at this report and conclude that it's in their best interest to support children," said Gary Marx, the spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. "Their future safety may depend on it."

In Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A National Report, the authors predict that if current trends persist and the juvenile population continues to climb as expected--by 22 percent over the next decade--juvenile arrests for violent crimes will more than double to 261,000 by 2010.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno released the study at a news conference this month and pointed to the report's findings in lobbying to retain programs in the crime bill passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton last year. Republican lawmakers have threatened to eliminate various programs contained in the law.

"We must begin to fully implement the crime bill, with its focus on 100,000 new community police officers, drug courts, real prevention and early-intervention [programs] if we are to stop young delinquents from becoming career criminals," Ms. Reno said.

Poverty, Drugs, Guns

Researchers at the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice wrote the report using information from more than 50 sources, including fbi studies, court records, and census data.

The researchers found several trends that may have contributed to the alarming increases in violent crime among youths:

  • As the crime rate rose during the 1980s, so did the number of children living in poverty. In 1992, 14.6 million juveniles lived below the poverty level, a 42 percent increase from 1976.
  • More juveniles are using handguns to commit violent crimes. In 1976, 59 percent of juveniles who killed someone used a handgun. By 1991, that figure increased to 78 percent.
  • In the early years of the 1990s, when law-enforcement officials recorded a sharp increase in juvenile crime, illicit drug use among juveniles also increased. After years of decline during the 1980s, use of illegal drugs by high school students rose in 1992 and again in 1993.

The most dramatic increases in juvenile crime during that time occurred in large urban centers where illicit drugs, such as crack cocaine, were readily available, the report says.

After-School Crime

While a relatively small number of young people are responsible for the majority of the juvenile violent crimes committed in this country, mostsic people under 18 say they have broken the law--committing offenses such as petty theft or underage drinking--at least once, the study found.

Juveniles are most likely to commit violent acts and other crimes between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., peaking between the end of the school day until dinner time, when the number of incidents start to decline.

Juveniles are less likely to engage in illegal acts or to be victims of crime while in school, the report shows.

Melissa Sickmund, a co-author of the study, said the report calls into question the efficacy of laws that bar minors from being out late at night.

"The figures make one wonder why there is such a push for curfews around midnight when we need to do something with the kids right after school," Ms. Sickmund said.

"What we are doing now is not making a sweeping, positive impact," she added.

More Young Victims

In addition to committing more offenses, children also are increasingly the victims of crimes, the study found, and they are far more likely to be victims than are young adults.

A 12- to 17-year-old is more likely to be the victim of a violent crime--such as murder or assault--than a person older than 24, for instance.

Reported cases of child abuse and neglect have also increased in recent years.

Child-protective agencies received 2.9 million reports of child abuse and neglect in 1992, a dramatic increase from 1980, when there were nearly 1 million reported cases.

Most child-abuse and neglect cases--more than 53 percent in 1986--were reported by school officials, the report says.

Looking for Answers

David Liederman, the executive director of the Washington-based Child Welfare League of America, said last week that the crime rate among juveniles is directly linked to the rising numbers of impoverished, neglected children.

"You can't ignore the problems in America the way we have and expect that things are going to get better," he said.

"One of these days, the leading politicians are going to see that eliminating the safety net for children and families will only exacerbate the problem," he said, warning that the welfare-reform plan making its way through Congress could make matters worse.

But Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Family Research Council, a legislative-interest group, disagreed.

"The reason why there is crime is not poverty, it's social breakdown," Ms. Hamrick said.

"When we build our whole society on the safety net," she said, "it's bound to unravel."

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