Number of Juvenile Murderers Is Soaring

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The number of young murderers in the United States has tripled in the last decade, exceeding 26,000 in 1994, a U.S. Justice Department unit reported Thursday.

Over the same 1984-'94 period, the number of juvenile murderers using guns quadrupled, underscoring the part that availability of firearms appears to be playing in the mayhem.

The report, released by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, gauges in numbers the horror that many cities are experiencing in their streets and emergency rooms--more teenagers armed and ready to pull the trigger than ever before.

An update of a study issued last September by the National Center for Juvenile Justice indicated that an earlier estimate that juvenile arrests for violent crime will more than double by the year 2010 may prove low.

"These figures threaten the success we've had in bringing overall violence down nationwide," Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said in announcing the report at a White House-convened conference on youth drug use and violence. "Congress must step forward and keep its promises to help us put new police on the streets, put hardened young people behind bars, send first-time offenders to drug courts and boot camps and keep kids out of gangs. We can only save our future if we act now."

The report found that in 1994 the states of New York, Florida, California, New Jersey and Maryland had the highest juvenile violent crime arrest rates. But beyond breaking down those rates by offenses, the study gave no other state or local data.

Based on arrests per 100,000 juveniles ages 10 to 17, California had a "violent crime index" for that age group of 760, compared with a national index of 514. The index combined the four offenses of forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault and murder-nonnegligent manslaughter.

Aside from the firearms correlation, the update made no attempt to analyze the causes of the surge in youth violence.

Kent Markus, counselor to the attorney general for youth violence, cited recent studies showing that "young people are spending less time than ever in the company of adults. . . . There are not people there to draw limits or be praiseworthy--to be positive or negative," Markus said. In Senate testimony last week, James Alan Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University, said that a 14-year-old carrying a gun "is far more menacing than a 44-year-old with a gun."

"Although juveniles may be untrained in using firearms," Fox told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on youth violence, "they are more willing to pull the trigger over trivial matters--a leather jacket, a pair of sneakers or no reason at all--without fully considering the consequences."

Demographics are expected to make the problem of youth violence worse, with the number of teenagers ages 14 to 17 expected to increase by 14% by the year 2005, according to Fox. He said that the increase will be even larger "among people of color--17% among black teens and 30% among Latino teens. Given the difficult conditions in which many of these youngsters grow up--with inferior schools and violence-torn neighborhoods--many more teenagers will be at risk in the years ahead."

Testifying before the same subcommittee, Alfred Blumstein, a leading authority on crime rates, cited the role of drug markets as a primary factor in the youth violence surge. Noting that crack markets began their explosive growth about 1985, he said that youth, primarily African Americans in central cities, were recruited into the markets and relied on carrying a gun to protect themselves and the crack.

This led to a broader diffusion of guns into the larger youth community, primarily for self-defense but also for status, according to Blumstein, now a professor at the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University.

Turning to victims, the study done for the Justice Department found that the number of juveniles murdered increased 82% between 1984 and 1994. While most of the juvenile murder victims were teenagers, the murders of very young children also increased.

More children are being killed by parents, while more older juveniles are killed by strangers and acquaintances, the study found.

Juveniles were murdered at a rate of seven a day in the United States in 1994, compared with five a day in 1980, the study said.

The arrests of female juveniles for violent crimes jumped to more than 21,000 in 1994 from 9,000 in 1985, paced by the sharpest increases in the high-volume crimes of robbery and aggravated assault, which doubled between 1984 and 1994.

President Clinton, meanwhile, told a White House conference on drugs and violence at a Greenbelt, Md., high school that the effort to stop drug use and related violence among the young cannot be done by law enforcement alone. He said that drug treatment, school and community action and millions of individual decisions not to use drugs are needed.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson also spoke at the conference, which was beamed to more than 100 schools around the country by satellite.

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