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Violent Youths: A New Statistical Profile

Most people have similar stereotypes of youths who commit violent crimes, those who join gangs and teens who become crime victims. So why would researchers take more than a decade to report findings that confirm much of what the general public already holds to be true about delinquency and victimization?

“One of the key points we hope this book brings out is that the differences that may exist in our minds aren’t necessarily existing in reality,” explains Dana Peterson, co-author of the new book Youth Violence: Sex and Race Differences in Offending, Victimization, and Gang Membership and associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Yes, many violent youth have similar risk factors, but what about their peers with similar risk factors who don’t turn to violence? And what about the youth with few of the traditional risk factors – lack of supervision at home, poor connections to school, association with pro-social peers rather than other juvenile delinquents – who turn out to be just as violent? Do sex or race make a difference?

Those were the kind of questions that the study – which superficially appears merely to state the obvious – hones in on.

In the end, while the scholars were able to trace more specifically the roots of violent tendencies, they didn’t come up with anything that predicted which youth would act on those tendencies. Those are the kinds of questions being addressed by ongoing violence reduction programs in Florida and in such cities as Chicago.

Youth Violence – packed with 200 pages of statistics and analysis – enumerates findings from a cross-sectional study of youth violent offenders, victims and gang members. The study, conducted across 11 racially diverse cities and towns, examined whether gender and race differences exist across the three types of violence.

Among their findings:

1. Violent youth offenders report having less parental supervision and hanging out with more delinquent peers than non-offenders.

2. Gang members believe they are justified in lying, stealing and fighting in certain situations and feel less guilt when they commit crimes.

3. Urban African-American males are at higher risk for violent victimization.

Nothing quite ground-shaking there.

The researchers collected self-reported data in 1995 from nearly 6,000 eighth-graders. Extensive statistical analyses measured a variety of risk factors across individual, family, peer and school domains. On the third attempt, the researchers finally found a theoretical model to support their data-driven explanation for youth violence. Yet the book concludes by saying this body of research does not support the need for gender-specific or race-specific programming directed at violent youth offenders, victims or gang members.

On the surface, the findings appear disappointing. But readers who take time to sift through the prosaic results will discover little gems of insight tucked inside the litany of text.

Risk factors

Take a walk through any inner city and statistics will seemingly swagger by in baggy jeans and basketball jerseys: young African-American teenage males, on the verge of dropping out of school, living with a single-parent mother, waiting to break the law. Arrest data and news reports reinforce this image of the typical violent youth offender.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists homicide as the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year olds. These deaths cannot be attributed to simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While the U.S. Justice Department reports that strangers commit one in four teenage homicides; more often than not, teenage victims know their killer, and it’s usually a friend or acquaintance.

Getting shot is not the only form of serious violence teenagers face. Serious violent crime also includes aggravated assault, robbery, being involved in a gang fight, and rape. The authors of the current study do not include any form of sexual assault in their definition of serious violent offending or victimization. Because of the time the data were gathered, the researchers also fail to include statistics relating serious violence associated with cyberbullying.

Understanding the nature of youth violence helps policymakers and youth workers make informed decisions on identification, prevention and intervention services for both offenders and potential victims. The researchers hoped to contribute to that body of evidence.

Culling decades of previous research and theorizing, the authors of Youth Violence identify 18 risk factors they believe contribute to the incidence of youth violence, and then separate them into domains.

  • Impulsivity, risk-seeking, guilt, social isolation, self-esteem and thinking it’s OK sometimes to lie or hit make up the “individual” domain.
  • The “family” domain includes parental monitoring, attachment to mother and attachment to father.
  • The “peer” domain covers association with pro-social peers, commitment to positive peers, association with delinquent peers, commitment to negative peers, percent of time spent without adult supervision, and percent of time spent with drugs and/or alcohol present.
  • The fourth domain, “school,” consists of commitment to school, perception of limited educational opportunities, and perception of a negative school environment.

The study indirectly measures socioeconomic status through students’ reports of their parents’ educational level. Missing from the study, however, are questions probing issues such as stable housing and school attendance.

For the entire study sample, with one exception, all 18 risk factors were found to be significantly correlated with violent offending, victimization and gang involvement. Only in the area of social isolation did victims of youth crime not experience significantly more social isolation than non-victims.

Gender differences

Looking closely at data can help clarify differences and similarities in violence between boys and girls, as well as among racial groups. Understanding these differences can further help with identification and programming. The study, based on self-reported acts rather than arrests, uncovered surprising statistics about teenage girls and crime.

In 1994, the FBI reported more than 85,000 juvenile arrests for aggravated assault and 3,700 youth arrests for homicide. By 2007, teen assault arrests had dropped by one-third and homicide arrests had fallen to 1,350. On the surface, the numbers look encouraging. Yet, according to U.S. Justice Department reports, teenage girls are more violent today than they were in the 1980s.

Dana Newman, deputy CEO and president of Youth Advocate Programs, a nonprofit youth and family support agency that works with high-risk youth in 25 major cities, concurs with this analysis.

“We’re seeing young woman becoming more and more active and more desperate in terms of the kinds of crimes they are committing. And they are doing this on the idea of impressing the male counterpart. It’s almost like a wannabe strategy. Whereby they want to act tough. They want to be accepted by the in crowd.”

The Youth Violence researchers found a significant gender gap for all acts of self-reported violence. The size of the gap differed, however, with the type of crime. For example, the numbers of boys and girls who hit people are closely matched, while more than three times as many boys as girls shoot at people.

Still, for every three boys who engaged in serious violent crime, two girls are engaging in similar violent acts. In addition, once they become classified as shooters, boys and girls self-report committing virtually the same number of shooting offenses over a 12-month period.

While this study does a good job of quantifying the prevalence and frequency of youth violence, it falls short of offering predictive help.

“One thing that our work can’t really address are some of the risk factors that might be unique particularly for girls, and those are things like experience of sexual abuse, sexual assault, other kinds of gender oppressions that we don’t tap in our school-based surveys,” Peterson says.

Racial differences

The past 10 years have seen a significant drop in documented youth violence. U.S. Justice Department charts illustrate sharp declines in arrest rates for African-American males. Comparable data for white juvenile offenders, on the other hand, reveal a virtual flat line for murder, robbery and aggravated assault arrests.

In other words, white teens are still doing what they’ve always done, in terms of crime. Or, are they?

Official arrest rates don’t always paint a complete picture when it comes to racial differences in youth violence.

“Sometimes communities don’t see violence among particular subsets of youth. For example, white youth somehow are overlooked or dealt with in a different way outside of the juvenile justice system,” Peterson says.

Racial disparities discovered by the Youth Violence authors do not necessarily trend in ways readers might expect. White youth in Kansas City, Mo., for example, self-report higher rates of serious violent acts than African-American or Hispanic youth in Orlando, Fla.; Philadelphia; Torrance, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; and Omaha, Neb.

Cumulative effect

Conventional wisdom says that the more odds a kid faces, the more likely he or she will get in trouble. This research adds a new twist to that idea.

With violent victimization, for each risk factor added, the odds grow incrementally that the teen will be assaulted, robbed or shot at.

A different pattern emerges for violent youth offenders and gang involvement. A young teen with six risk factors is 9½ times more likely to join a gang than a teen who has no risk factors. Add one more risk factor to that child’s profile and the chance the child will join a gang jumps to almost 20 times that of the zero-risk-factors child.

The research found that violent youth offending has two tipping points. Young teens moving from 11 to 12 risk factors see a similar spike in the odds of offending. An even more dramatic increase in odds occurs between 13 and 14 risk factors.

So, let’s walk down that inner city street once again, and reframe the scenario. The authors of Youth Violence found that only 24 percent of their total sample self-reported engaging in some form of serious youth violence. Put another way, three out of four of those urban youth passing by on the street are not the armed and dangerous thugs we assumed.

But risk factors alone can’t tell us if a child will succumb to violence. According to the research findings, more than one-third of the teens in the study who had 11or more risk factors did not report any form of violent offending. Two-thirds of those with 11 or more risk factor teens did not join a gang. At the other end of the spectrum, almost 100 kids in the study who reported zero risk factors actually reported committing a serious violent offense.

These kids live in similar circumstances and share many of the same risk factors. Why is it that some youth are violent, but most do not offend or join gangs?

“Our models don’t predict a large proportion of the variation in victimization or in offending or in gang membership, which means we have a lot of unmeasured factors that are accounting for that variation,” says Peterson.

Some cities and states are trying to assess some of those unmeasured factors.

Predicting crimes

Washington, D.C., with a long troubled juvenile justice system, is taking a brash approach: publicly naming violent juvenile offenders. A law permitting the names to be made public was passed after a spate of homicides allegedly committed by youths who were supposed to be under city supervision.

In a recent series, The Washington Times reported on the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services’ inconsistent and arbitrary review of risk factors for individual youth clients.

Proponents of this public-naming measure believe community partners and average citizens have the right to know who violent youth offenders are so they can protect themselves. Critics think this new policy is counterintuitive to helping youth offenders.

“If you’re identifying these kids as the problem, then to me all you’re doing is further tattooing on their head that they’re the problem. If you’re looking at me as the problem, then I’ll act like the problem,” says Newman of Youth Advocate Programs.

Chicago, on the other hand, is trying to identify and protect possible victims. After 59 Chicago Public School students were shot to death during a two-year period – among a total of 500 students who were shot – the school system decided to deal mainly with the potential victims. It’s an approach that hadn’t been used.

Building a mathematical algorithm, all Chicago Public School students were assessed for criteria such as poor attendance, truancy, misconduct in schools and homelessness – risk factors not studied by the authors of Youth Violence.

Ultimately, CPS designated 250 ultra-high-risk students for intense advocate services. When field workers began knocking on doors to begin the process of engaging students and families, they discovered a number of these students were already incarcerated in adult prisons.

Working the way down its list of 10,000 at-risk students, the CPS initiative remains committed to engaging students and families with intensive wraparound services. The program has seen a 20 percent drop in shootings midway through its first full year of implementation.

In contrast to Chicago’s boots-on-the-ground approach, the state of Florida is trying to predict crime trends by using IBM’s predictive SPSS analytics software.

The software is similar to what online retailers use to track a user’s past buying behavior or suggest future purchases. But Florida is looking for patterns, not trying to predict individual behavior.

Over time, Florida hopes that tracking trends will help in allocating resources to stem the rise in violence for certain gender or racial groups. Trend-watching and predictive analysis may also be used to understand treatment effects for different subpopulations within the Florida system.

Employing predictive models isn’t foolproof. There’s a chance that human or software analysis may miss a youth who will wind up being the worst offender in the system.

While the Youth Violence study falls short of providing a strong predictive tool, Peterson acknowledges the value of utilizing an objective review that appreciates the bigger picture rather than sticking with the status quo in prevention and intervention services.

“Looking at environments or contexts in which violence may occur and addressing things not at the individual level but at a little higher level may actually benefit more kids who find themselves in those environments,” she said.

Minette Bauer, a Youth Advocate Programs colleague of Newman, also sees a greater social cost-benefit in using predictive tools. By targeting the leadership group of students who may influence other potential youth offenders, the program works at getting youth back into school and keeping them safe from violence.

More importantly, CPS tracks these ultra-high-risk students as now going on to college, trade schools, and the military. Rather than exerting a negative influence on their friends, these students are forging a new path for their peers to follow.

Bauer observes, “We never dreamed they’d have dreams like they do.”


Study: Youth Violence: Sex and Race Differences in Offending, Victimization, and Gang Membership

Authors: Finn-Aage Esbensen, Dana Peterson, Terrance J. Taylor and Adrienne Freng.

Study Focus: The study seeks to answer three main questions: (1) What is the prevalence of youth violence and is there overlap between offenders, victimization and gang membership? (2) Does gender or race cause prevalence rates to vary? (3) What risk factors associated with youth violence vary by gender or race?

Type of Evaluation: Students completed a questionnaire that collected demographic information, attitudes relating to risk factors, and self-reported delinquency, gang affiliation and victimization. Data underwent a full statistical analysis to determine correlation, significance and effect.

Sample Size: 5,935 African-American, Hispanic, and white eighth-grade students who participated in a Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program. Students resided in 11 cities, ranging from rural areas to large urban settings. Cities also spanned a predominantly white demographic to a majority of racial minority students. Sample cities included Philadelphia; Phoenix; Milwaukee; Kansas City, Mo.; Providence, R.I.; Orlando, Fla.; Omaha, Neb.; Torrance, Calif.; Las Cruces, N.M., Pocatello, Idaho; and Will County, Ill.

Evaluation Period: Spring 1995.

Funded By: National Institute of Justice, as part of the National Evaluation of the G.R.E.A.T. program.

Availability: This 244-page book is available at booksellers. Table of contents and an excerpt are available at


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