In medicine, an epidemic is defined as an unexpected increase in the number of cases. Often, that increase presents itself in dramatic fashion, as when epidemiologists took alarmed note of the strange new disease that came to be called AIDS.
But the notion of an epidemic of teen homicides, James Alan Fox says, was slow to form.
Fox, the dean of the college of criminal justice at Boston’s Northeastern University and an expert on FBI homicide statistics, long has linked a bulk of society’s violence to 18- to 24-year-old males, a population group he calls the “young and the ruthless.”
Even as violent crime surged in the late 1970s, Fox was predicting it would ebb as baby boomers aged. That prediction held true; in the first half of the 1980s, homicides dropped 23%.
But then all the conventional and statistical wisdom went out the window.
Even as the 18-24 age group shrank, its homicide rate began to climb. From 1984 through 1991, homicides within the group increased by 62%.
More disturbing was the sudden burst of homicide among those 14-17. From 1976 to 1985, the homicide rate among these juveniles held steady. But it began to climb sharply after that, increasing 124% by 1991.
Why the sudden increase? Fox lists various possibilities--the introduction and sudden popularity of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, which brought guns in with the drug trade and touched off an arms race in the inner city; the numbing drumming of violence on television, movies, even video games; cutbacks in government funding for youth programs.
These trends portend a dark future. By 2005, the 15- to 19-year-old segment of society will grow 23%. Within some minorities, the teen population will grow by more than two-thirds.
“We’re in for a demographic double whammy,” Fox said. “Not only are the teen-agers maturing into more violent young adults, but the number of teen-agers is growing.”
Even if the rate of homicide suddenly levels off by then, the number of murders is likely to increase with the growth in the number of teen-agers.
“We’re now seeing six teen murders a day,” Fox said. “There’s no telling what it will be in the future.”