Number of Young Homicide Victims Rises


Young black males are being murdered, and being arrested for murder, at a far higher rate than they were in 2002, according to a report released by two Northeastern University professors.

The report has focused attention on youth violence just before Congress begins a session that will have legislation on the subject front and center.

The number of homicides in which the victim was black and between 14 and 17 was 468 in 2007, up from 300 in 2002, the lowest figure this decade. Black teens in that age group were arrested for homicide 1,142 times in 2007, up from 798 in 2002.

The same trend applied to young black adult males (18 to 24), although the changes were less pronounced: more murdered, more arrested for murder.

The number of white 14- to 17-year-olds who were murdered rose by 60 (from 262 to 323) - an increase of 23 percent, compared with the 56 percent rise in black teen homicide victims - and 28 fewer white teens in that age group were arrested for a homicide in 2007 than were arrested in 2002.

"The Recent Surge in Homicides involving Young Black Males and Guns: Time to Reinvest in Prevention and Crime Control" was written by James Alan Fox and Marc Swatt, both criminal justice professors at Northeastern in Boston. They used Supplementary Homicide Reports that they have created as part of the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program.  For their comparisons, Fox and Swatt combined 2006 and 2007 numbers for 14- to 24-year-olds and measured the percent change in offenders against numbers for 2000 and 2001.

A few other trends to note:

*All nine geographic regions of the country saw an increase in young black males arrested for murder according to Fox and Swatt's calculation. .

Only the East North Central and East South Central regions posted percent changes of less than 10 percent. Five of the nine regions saw percent changes of more than 20 percent.

That said, the trends do not hold true at the state level. Twenty-four states saw statistically significant increases in 14-24 year-old black homicide offenders, and 12 saw decreases.

*With cities, size matters. In the biggest U.S. cities (1 million people or more), there was actually an 8 percent drop in 14- to 24-year-old blacks arrested for a homicide. This shows up most notably in California and New York, where states saw a sizable increase in the number of young black men arrested for homicide while their largest cities (L.A. and New York) saw dramatic decreases. Smaller cities - those with populations between 250,000 and 500,000 - saw only a 5 percent increase in 14- to 24-year-old blacks arrested for homicide.

Every other locality grouping, including medium-sized cities (more than 500,000 but less than 1 million)  and small towns of 10,000, saw increases of greater than 20 percent.

The numbers are not news to most researchers or advocates. But presenting them in a racial context isn't something they are wont to do.

"I've seen the same pattern in juvenile arrest data, but I try to avoid feeding the media with reports written and labeled in a way that will generate potentially racist headlines," Jeffrey Butts, a senior fellow of the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, said in an e-mail. "Race is a proxy for income and class. If our crime data sources included direct measures of income and class, people wouldn't be tempted to over-analyze the importance of race and ethnicity."

Fox rejects that notion. "There have been no racist headlines here," he says. "Just writing columns for journals doesn't make an impact on public policy. You gotta get the word out there."

He agrees with Butts, though, that "it's not an issue of race" as much as the "socioeconomic conditions that underlie racial conditions."

That Fox is the co-author of the report makes it all the more spicy. He did not endear himself to the cause of some JJ advocates in the 1990s, when his prediction of a "blood bath of teenage violence" helped instill fear of teen "super predators" in the hearts of lawmakers around the country. Fox later backed off the comment, and conceded that "some of it was part of getting people's attention." But that didn't stop get-tough legislators from using it to help ram through ill-conceived legislation.

A look through his work since those days would indicate that he is against the ideological nonsense that was enacted in the wake of the "blood bath" comment. He conducts research with Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, and last year lambasted the state of Massachusetts for its harsh murder laws for juveniles.

"It's time to rethink our rigid juvenile murder law and allow lesser penalties for perpetrators who, by virtue of emotional and cognitive immaturity, are less responsible,' Fox wrote in a column for the Boston Globe.

Fox has gotten people's attention again with this report: Stories and editorials have appeared in major papers around the country for the past two days (Fox knew what he was doing, releasing the study right after the Christmas lull when reporters needed an early-week story).

And again, he is making bold statements. Fox sees a "divergent tale of two communities - one prosperous and safe, the other poor and crime-ridden," as he says in the report's preface.

"It hardly takes a rocket recognize that there are increasing numbers of wayward and poorly-supervised youngsters with guns in their hands and gangs in their plans," the report states.  

What does he hope will (and will not) happen as a result of this report? It's clear from his conclusions that he blames Congress and the federal government for three things: Taking their eye off of the ATF gun tracing program as the focus swung to homeland security after 9/11; reducing the amount spent on prevention and rehabilitation through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; and dwindling support of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).

Just a guess here, but Fox may again find himself in hot water with JJ advocates who would like to see Rep. Bobby Scott's (D-Va. ) PROMISE Act passed in the next session.

The title of this report alone favors the premise of another bill: Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) Gang Abatement and Prevention Act, which proposes to balance prevention activities with funds for stricter law enforcement. And as JJ Today has reported, Scott has drawn a line in the sand between the two bills. Only one will likely find its way onto Barack Obama's desk.

The report's conclusion section appear to support Feinstein's desire for gang suppression as well. "We must, of course, look toward immediate solutions for controlling gang activity and easy access to illegal firearms - approaches that depend heavily on police personnel, intelligence and deployment," the report states.

This editorial from the New York Times, however, leans more toward Scott's bill.

Fox says he testified at a hearing convened by Sen. Joe Biden  (D. Del.) last year and was generally supportive of Feinstein's approach. But told about Scott's bill by JJ Today, he says he completely understands why the congressman is protecting it from a conference with the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act.

"I certainly agree that prevention gets short shrift" when it and law enforcement are financed in the same conversation.