The terms children and adolescents refer to persons under the age of 18 years of age. Adolescence is the period of human development when puberty begins as youngsters approach adulthood, usually starting between the ages of 11 and 13. This developmental period is characterized by major physiological and physical changes in the human body and is one of emotional highs and lows. Some adolescents display abrupt and unexpected personality changes as they experiment with drugs, become increasingly independent from their families, interact more with their peers, and strive to meet social pressures of success within academic, social, and occupational settings. While many youngsters will participate in minor deviant behaviors such as underage drinking, speeding, truancy, smoking, sexual promiscuity, and less serious criminal acts, others will commit crimes such as aggravated assault, rape, arson, and even murder. When youth do commit such heinous acts, these offenses typically receive a disproportionate amount of press coverage. Of all criminal acts, homicide is the most egregious act of interpersonal violence committed within our society. A homicide is defined as the willful and purposeful killing of another human being. Thus, the topic of juvenile killers is an important issue within society.
Rates Of Juvenile Homicide In The United States
The participation of youth in violent behaviors is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is one that has had a significant historical precedent in the United States. Beginning in the 1950s and over the next 40 years, official reports of violent crime rose over 600%, with juveniles accounting for the greatest increase in these numbers. Since the mid-1970s, concerns about youth crime have brought about laws increasing the penalties for juvenile offenders who committed violent acts such as homicide. Due to public outcry for stiffer penalties, legislation has provided for a significant increase in the number of juveniles transferred into adult courts for prosecution, while simultaneously reducing judicial discretion with mandatory sentences. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing on into the mid-1990s, the United States witnessed a drastic increase in the number of both juvenile and adult violent crimes.
The record numbers of youngsters being victimized or arrested for serious violent offenses peaked in the mid-1990s and underscored the need to look at the youth violence phenomenon independently. The recognition of teen violence and aggression as a social and public health crisis, coupled with high-profile media accounts of school shootings, led the U.S. surgeon general in 2001 to call for an investigation of the issues contributing to youth violence in America. Presently, juvenile crime rates are comparable to those in the 1970s, with less than 10% of all homicides nationally committed by juveniles under the age of 18 years old.
Current Public Perceptions Of Juvenile Homicide Offenders
Juvenile homicide offenders (JHOs) are perceived by much of the public to be different from youngsters in the past. They are commonly regarded as more violent, predatory, and prolific in the crimes at younger ages. Some scholars have argued that the drug war and rise of inner-city gangs have led to a new breed of juvenile killer, with minority males killing each other in record numbers in large cities throughout the United States as turf wars and retaliation murders terrorize some neighborhoods.
Dynamics Surrounding Child And Adolescent Killings
There is not a “typical” kind of juvenile homicide. Rather, when children or adolescents do kill, there are varying reasons that appear to explain the homicidal event. However, there are general observations that can be made regarding juveniles who kill. First, there tends to be a significant gender gap in young killers, with males outnumbering females in large proportions.
Some researchers have suggested that the social forces that propel boys to act aggressively do not motivate girls in the same manner. Second, it is much more common for youngsters to commit murder with peers than alone. This suggests the influence of group dynamics on youngsters’ experiences of peer pressure, perceptions of their pride and stature, and efforts to impress others when in the presence of peers. Such issues rarely apply to adult homicides and are reflective of the emotional immaturity and impulsivity common during childhood and adolescence.
Third, the availability of guns has contributed to the increase in lethality when youngsters do act out violently. Critics have argued that the number of murders committed by those under the age of 18 would decrease if guns were not as readily available to them. Finally, older juveniles have a significantly greater likelihood than younger offenders of carrying out a violent attack that will result in a death. Research has shown that 16and 17-year-olds have higher rates of homicide than any other age group of juveniles.
Parricide, or the killing of one’s parents, is one particular type of juvenile homicide that is especially shocking to the public and that represents one of society’s greatest taboos. Yet such killings are relatively rare phenomena, as 200 to 400 juvenile and adult children murder their parents or stepparents annually in the United States. Although juveniles receive a disproportionate amount of press when they do kill a parent, the majority of parricide offenders are adults. When a child does commit parricide, the case commonly involves years of severe emotional, sexual, and/or physical abuse from the parent who was murdered. The child kills because he or she feels that there is no way to escape or that the abuser will kill him or her. Such cases may elicit strong public support for the youngster and his or her siblings once the details of the abuse come to light. In addition, researchers have identified other types of parricide offenders who kill due to either severe mental illness or antisocial tendencies. When children do kill for money or their freedom, such as in the case of the Menendez brothers in California, the public is often fascinated and horrified, resulting in a media frenzy.
- Heide, K. (1999). Young killers: The challenge of juvenile homicide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2001). Youth violence: A report of the surgeon general. Rockville, MD: Author.
- S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1984–2004). Crime in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- Zimring, F. E. (1998). American youth violence. New York: Oxford University Press.
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