Speech at the 1997 Meeting of the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations Crime Prevention
and Criminal Justice Program
National and Comparative Perspectives on Juvenile Violence
Director of the National Institute of Justice
October 4, 1997
I am deeply honored by the invitation to address this international conference and wish to express my gratitude to the Executive
Committee of ISPAC and its Chairman, Dr. Gerhard O.W. Mueller, and to its organizer, Prof. Alex Schmidt, for extending the
invitation. The topic that this conference intends to address could not be more timely. In our emerging global community,
it is imperative that we develop a deeper intellectual understanding of violent crime and the conflicts that afflict our society.
So I commend ISPAC for convening this impressive group of researchers and practitioners to help develop that understanding.
As important, I believe, is the second half of the theme of this conference -- "towards early warning and prevention mechanisms"
-- for it is equally important and compelling that we learn about the successes of those communities that have developed effective
strategies to prevent violent crime and deter conflict. Hopefully, these two activities can be linked in our thinking -- as
we develop more sophisticated understanding of the underlying factors associated with violence, we should also commit ourselves
to translating that knowledge into a sound foundation for action. I believe this is our responsibility as citizens of our
I have taken the liberty of narrowing the focus of our discussion. I hope that this approach will complement the presentation
of Prof. Alex Schmidt. My purpose this morning is to address the phenomenon of violent crime by focusing on juvenile violence.
Although my remarks will be centered on a discussion of juvenile violence in the United States, I will draw upon some recent
research that compares the rates of juvenile violence in the United States with rates in other countries. I find these comparisons
very provocative and hope that they stimulate discussion at this conference. Finally, I wish to address the prevention portion
of the conference theme by reporting on recent findings of a major research study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice.
I. YOUTH VIOLENCE: AN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE
In the United States, the topic of juvenile violence has been the subject of an overheated debate. Some American commentators
have warned that we face a "bloodbath" as the next birth cohort enters the crime-prone years. Some predict that we will experience
a generation of remorseless "superpredators" unlike any young criminals we have seen before. On the other end of the political
spectrum, commentators of different persuasions observe that only a small percentage of young people engage in crime, decry
any increase in criminal penalties as misguided retributivism, and draw lines in the ideological sand at any mention of curfews,
truancy enforcement or metal detectors in schools.
To sort through these competing claims, our first task is to define the problem of juvenile crime. We should put the phenomenon
of juvenile crime -- particularly violent juvenile crime -- in the context of America’s crime problem.
Prof. James Q. Wilson recently observed that America’s crime problem is actually two problems -- violent crime and everything
else.1 I have distributed a chart showing that, over the past decade, America has experienced first a sharp increase, and now a
sharp decrease in violent crime. In a moment, I will offer some perspectives for understanding these recent changes. First
however, I wish to call your attention to the second chart. This chart shows that the property crime rates in the United States
have been steadily declining for over twenty years. In fact, in 1990, the rates of nonviolent thefts were higher in London
than in New York City.2 Sydney Australia and Los Angeles California have very similar levels of nonviolent property crimes.3
Recently published research conducted by Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins allows us to make even broader statements about
the comparability of nonviolent crime rates. In their book, Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America,4 Zimring and Hawkins describe a series of new victimization surveys asking the same question in many different countries.
According to this study, the rates of theft, burglary and even non-aggravated assault reported in the United States are rarely
more than 30 percent above those of 18 developed, Western nations. According to Jan van Dijk and Pat Mayhew, who studied the
1996 International Crime Victims Survey in their publication Criminal Victimization in Eleven Industrialized Countries,5 countries such as England, Canada, and the Netherlands experience higher rates of burglary than the United States. And England,
Scotland, and France all have higher rates of theft from, and of, cars than the United States. In short, although the differences
in non-violent crime rates between Western nations remain worthy of academic inquiry, it is important to recognize that the
United States experience with non-violent crime is fundamentally quite similar to the experience of other Western nations.
A comparison of the experiences of the United States with violent crime and those of other nations is quite sobering. According to victimization surveys, while there are more crimes and more
criminals in London than in New York City, the homicide rate in New York City is more than ten times that in London.6 Yet even this chilling comparison masks a more disturbing relationship reported by Zimring and Hawkins. When one compares
crime in London with crime in New York City, we see that crime in New York more often turns violent and deadly, even though
murder may not have been in the original criminal design. New York City and London have very similar numbers of robbery and
burglary combined -- in 1992 there were 212,000 such incidents in London and 191,000 in New York City. Yet, in London, those
criminal events resulted in only seven deaths of the victims, while in New York City, a similar number of criminal events
results in 378 victim deaths -- a rate 54 times greater.7 So we should not take too much comfort in the distinction between violent and nonviolent crime rates, because lethal violence
is frequently the outcome of a criminal incident. This nexus between violent and non violent crime has profound consequences
for criminal justice policies and for the justifiable levels of fear in our society engendered by crime.
Before returning to a discussion of comparisons between crime in the United States and in other countries, I would like first
to focus on the historical picture of violent crime in the United States. As I mentioned earlier, the important story in the
United States has been the rapid increase, then the rapid decline, in violent crime over the past decade. I believe that the
best way to understand this phenomenon is to understand the story within the story -- this is the story of juvenile violence.
Criminologists have long known that criminal behavior peaks in the late teenage years. Yet juvenile offending patterns have
shown some atypical phenomena recently. Over the past twenty years in the United States, robbery and burglary rates for juveniles
have remained basically the same, but something significant has happened with violence committed by juveniles. As the third
chart in the handout shows, between the years 1985 and 1992, after years of steady decline, the homicide rate for defendants
under age 24 increased significantly, with the rate of increase inversely related to age. For defendants age 18, the rate
doubled. For 20-22 year old defendants the homicide rate also increased significantly, while homicide rates for 24 year olds
remained the same. As the fourth chart shows, during the same seven year period, the number of juvenile homicides committed
with handguns also doubled. Finally, during the same period, the arrest rate for nonwhite juveniles for drug offense more
What happened in the mid-80's in dozens of American cities to explain these unprecedented changes in behavior? The most plausible
theory, for me, is the introduction of "crack" cocaine during these years. Saying that "crack" is the answer still does not
provide an explanation for the surge in youth violence. Prof. Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University has developed
a hypothesis that, to me, has great facial validity, called the "diffusion hypothesis": that, as new crack entrepreneurs were
setting up business, taking over turf previously dominated by others, they recruited young people as sellers and middle managers,
then these low level dealers needed handguns to defend themselves, and the guns, once in the hands of impulsive adolescents,
quickly "diffused" into the youth culture so that everyday adolescent squabbles over girlfriends and valuable clothing got
settled by gunfire.9
This theory strikes me as reasonable -- and at the National Institute of Justice we are funding research to test it. This
deadly mixture of kids, guns, drugs and gangs quickly lead to the rash of senseless killings, drive-by shootings, guns in
schools that confronted American cities through much of the past decade.
This deadly mixture has had a particularly devastating impact upon America’s inner cities and the minority community. By the
middle of the decade of the 1980's, the homicide rates for young African-American males were rising at dramatic rates, while
the rate for white males was rising at a much slower rate. For black males in their middle teen years, the homicide rate is
more than ten times that for whites.10 The impact upon the black community has been far-reaching. According to a study by the Sentencing Project, approximately
one out of three African-American males between the ages of 20 and 29 is under criminal justice supervision -- either in prison
or jail, or on probation or parole.11 We have not begun to confront the consequence of this reach of crime and the criminal law into black America.
Given these dire findings about the rates of violence -- particularly juvenile violence -- in America, how should we think
about the future? Some academic commentators have looked at these data and have predicted the advent of a crime wave in the
years to come. To me, this prediction masks a very disturbing presumption. Why do we assume that the crime wave of violent
juveniles we experienced in the 80's will be followed by another wave of ever more violent youths?
It is certainly true that the number of juveniles in the crime prone years will increase in the United States. In fact, these
children have already been born. By the year 2005, the number of teenagers between 14 and 17 will increase by 14 percent,
with even greater percentage increases among minorities living in our inner cities.12 Those who have predicted a dire future have assumed that the RATE of juvenile crime will increase -- or remain constant --
and this increased NUMBER of teenagers engaging in violence at these higher rates will cause a "bloodbath".
Yet demography is not destiny. Indeed, I think the responsible position for public officials is to try to defeat these pessimistic
prognostications -- for this reason, I applaud this conference’s emphasis on prevention and early warning systems. It is important
to note that the recent experiences of several American cities provide grounds for optimism. In New York City, the homicide
rate has dropped precipitously: in 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City, my home town, last year (1996) there
were 986, a decline of 56%, and if the current trends hold for this year, there will be approximately 785 homicides in New
York City, making it one of the safest cities in the United States.13 In Boston, after a rash of gang-related juvenile homicides in the early 1990's, claiming up to 75 lives, a citywide strategy
involving creative mixtures of enforcement and prevention efforts has created remarkable results. Since July 1995 -- a twenty-seven
month period -- not one young person has been killed by gunfire.14 This may strike our international colleagues as an event of little note, but against the backdrop of a seemingly endless
funerals for young men in our inner cities, this is a major victory.*
I do not want to leave the impression that violent crime is declining in every American city -- in fact, crime continues to
increase in several major cities. Yet, a closer look at recent national data confirm that we are making progress. Over the
past two years, juvenile crime has fallen substantially -- by seven percent in 1995 alone.15 According to a U.S. Department of Justice statement released last year, arrest rates for both juvenile violent crime and
murder decreased for the first time in a decade.16 Specifically, in 1995, the juvenile violent crime arrest rate declined by 2.9 percent and the murder arrest rate decreased
by 15.2 percent.17 And since 1993, these juvenile arrest rates have declined by 22.8 percent.18 If this trend continues, much of the increase in juvenile violence we witnessed during the early phase of the crack epidemic
will be eliminated within a few years.
*Because there has been such international interest in these declines, allow me to suggest four contributing factors. First,
as NIJ research has documented, there have been significant declines in the use of crack cocaine in several American cities.19 Furthermore, in an NIJ analysis of homicides in American cities, soon to be published, levels of crack cocaine use is strongly
correlated with both the rise and decline in homicides.20 Second, there has been a reduction in the availability of illegal handguns and assault weapons.21 Third, innovative police and prosecution strategies have shown success at targeting criminogenic locations and breaking up
criminal gangs.22 Finally, there has been an impressive display of community resistance to crime that has resulted in effective anti-crime
II. INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS IN JUVENILE CRIME
I find it fascinating -- and potentially revealing -- that the increase in juvenile violence is not unique to the United States.
In America, we are struggling to develop our own theories to explain our surge in juvenile violence. We have focused on variables
that appear to be uniquely American -- particularly the advent of "crack cocaine" in the mid-1980's, our tragic history of
criminal gun violence, the presence and growth of criminal gangs in many of our cities. Yet these theories seem only partially
helpful when we consider the increases in juvenile violence in countries that have no experience with "crack", have no widespread
circulation of guns, and do not have a history of criminogenic gangs.
At the request of the Ministry of the Interior in the Netherlands, Dr. Christian Pfeiffer of the Kriminilogisches Forschungsinstitut
von Niedersachsen recently completed a comparison of juvenile crime rates in ten European countries.24 While there was little or no increase in the number of juvenile suspects in the early 1980's, Pfeiffer found that in the
1990's -- and usually beginning in the mid-1980's -- there has been a sharp increase in violent crimes committed by young
people, as reported by the police in England & Wales, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, France, Denmark, Switzerland
and Poland. Data from all of these countries show greater increases in violent crime rates among juveniles than among young
adults. And the increases have been substantial -- youth violence has risen in all of these countries by at least 50% since
1986, and by more than 100% in a majority of them.
The profiles of some of the countries covered in this report are particularly interesting. At the low end, Austria experienced
a 10.3% increase in juvenile homicidal and assault offenses between 1990 and 1995, in comparison to a 43% increase in offenses
involving robbery, and a 27% increase in crimes against property. France experienced a 86.7% increase in violent juvenile
crimes between 1984 and 1994. Adding together offenses involving robbery and assault, there was an overall increase of 143%
among juveniles in contrast to a 31% increase for adults. In Italy, violent youth crimes committed against the person increased
by 213% between 1986 and 1993, and offenses involving robbery increased by 118%. In Germany, violent juvenile crime doubled
between 1989 and 1995, and most of the juvenile violent crime involved victims of the same age group. In the Netherlands,
between 1985 and 1995, juvenile offenses of violence against the person increased by 123%, and police-registered youth violence
in Holland was 2.5 times higher in 1995 that in 1985.
In Canada, a country not included in the Pfeiffer study, although the youth charge rate in Canada remained stable in 1995,
following three consecutive annual decreases, the rate at which young people were charged with violent crime increased by
2.4 percent, and in 1995, the juvenile violent crime rate was twice as high as it was in 1986.25
These findings are very important because they compel us to ask fundamental questions about the relationship between our society
and our young people. How can we explain the European trends? Professor Pfieffer, in his report, offers his own hypotheses.26 He points to several possible contributing factors. He asserts that the increase in relative poverty in these countries,
and what he calls, "advancing social disintegration," are important contributors. He also points to the increasing reliance
upon stricter, more punitive criminal justice responses to juvenile violence, with decreased use of diversion and prevention
programs. This shift, he argues, accentuates and reflects a tendency toward social exclusion of young people and the decrease
in supportive social networks. He also points to the increase in drug abuse problems in several European countries.
I will leave it to our European colleagues to discuss these trends and their explanation. However, it is my hope that the
international community of scholars will test these and other competing hypotheses and will engage our American colleagues
in that debate. It is critically important that we seize this moment when we have a relatively solid empirical understanding
of the phenomenon of juvenile violence to develop hypotheses, design interventions based on those hypotheses, and test those
interventions to determine how best to turn the tide. I hope that this conference will contribute to this important international
III. THE ROLE OF COMMUNITY: RECENT FINDINGS FROM CHICAGO
I would like to end my remarks by sharing some relevant findings from a major study being sponsored by the National Institute
of Justice, and co-funded by the Macarthur Foundation. This research effort, called the Project on Human Development in Chicago
Neighborhoods, is the most ambitious study of the relationship between community, crime, delinquency, family and individual
development now underway in the United States. At the community level, the Project has surveyed more than 8,700 adult residents
in 343 neighborhoods throughout Chicago. In addition, researchers have identified 80 neighborhoods as the focus for a longitudinal
cohort study to be conducted over the next eight years. As part of the first wave of this longitudinal study, researchers
have conducted interviews with 7,000 children and adolescents and their primary caregivers.27
Over the next several years, we will be reaping the rich rewards of this ambitious research project. Last month, the research
team, headed by Dr. Felton Earls of the Harvard School of Public Health, published their first findings in Science magazine.28 They reported that the largest predictor of violent crime rates was "collective efficacy" -- a term they used to mean a sense
of trust, common values, and cohesion in a neighborhood. They found that there are lower rates of violence in neighborhoods
that have a strong sense of community and values, where adults are likely to intervene when children are missing from school
or scrawling graffiti. According to Professor Robert Sampson, a co-author of the report, "cohesion, or efficacy, seems to
be a shared vision, a fusion of shared willingness of residents to intervene and social trust, a sense of engagement and ownership
of public space." According to Dr. Earls, the most important characteristic of "collective efficacy" is a "willingness by
residents to intervene in the lives of children." Dr. Earls is referring to a willingness to supervise, or step in, and monitor
children in a neighborhood.29
This finding of collective efficacy is important standing alone, but it is doubly important when placed in context. Collective
efficacy, when assessing predictors of violence, has an impact OVER AND ABOVE traditional predictors such as race/ethnic composition,
poverty and residential instability.
I do not mean to suggest that the Chicago study is charting totally unexplored territory. Prof. Freda Adler, in her book entitled
Nations Not Obsessed with Crime,30 published in 1983, compares five pairs of countries, representing different regions of the the globe and a broad range of
socioeconomic and politicocultural systems. However, all 10 countries had low crime rates. Specifically, the countries under
study were Switzerland and Ireland, Bulgaria and the German Democratic Republic, Costa Rica and Peru, Algeria and Saudi Arabia,
and Japan and Nepal. Despite all their differences, all ten countries appear to share success in maintaining or creating informal
social control mechanisms that assist in preserving and transmitting shared values. The analysis of the effectiveness of the
social control systems concludes that social solidarity -- what Prof. Adler refers to as "synomie" -- is the essential feature
of the society in countries with low crime rates. In contrast to social anomie and disharmony, in a synomic society, there
is a sharing of values.
The Chicago Study also builds upon the work of David Hawkins and Richard Catalano who have identified the risk factors and
protective factors associated with juvenile violence. These are factors at the community level, in the family, in school,
and in the individual that either put young people at risk of violence or protect them against the effects or exposure to
Yet the Chicago study is important because of the ambition of its analytical approach and the rigor of its quantitative analysis.
We hope it will provide a strong theoretical basis for developing the interventions that will strengthen the ability of communities
to reduce conflict and violence, the important second theme of this conference. I thank you for this invitation and hope that
these observations provoke useful discussion during the conference.
- Wilson, James Q. "What Can Be Done about the Scourge of Violence among Juveniles?" New York Times, Col. 1, Pg. 24, Sec. A, Friday December 30 1994.
- Zimring, Franklin & Gordon Hawkins. (1997). "Lethal Violence and the Overreach of American Imprisonment." NIJ Research Report.
- Zimring, Franklin & Gordon Hawkins. (1997). Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mayhew, Pat & Jan van Dijk. (1997). Criminal Victimization in Eleven Industrialized Countries. Germany: WODC.
- Zimring, Franklin & Gordon Hawkins. (1997). "Lethal Violence and the Overreach of American Imprisonment." NIJ Research Report.
- Blumstein, Alfred. (1995). "Violence by Young People: Why the Deadly Nexus?" National Institute of Justice Journal. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Blumstein, Alfred. 1995. "Youth Violence, Guns, and the Illicit-Drug Industry." The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology. Vol.86, No.1. Northwestern University School of Law.
- Hagan, John. (1997)."Youth Violence: Children at Risk." American Sociological Association Congressional Seminar. Washington,
- The Sentencing Project. (1995). "Race, Ethnicity, and the Criminal Justice System." Young Black Men and the Criminal Justice System: A Growing National Problem. Washington, DC.
- Law Enforcement News. "Just How Should We Deal With Youth Crime?" December 31, 1996. John Jay School of Criminal Justice,
City University of New York.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Kennedy, David. (1997). "Pulling Levers: Chronic Offenders, High-Crime Settings, and a Theory of Prevention." Valparaiso Law Review.Vol.31, No.2.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1995). National Crime Victimization Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Federal Bureau of Investigations. (1995). Uniform Crime Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Golub, Andrew Lang & Bruce D. Johnson. (1997). "Crack’s Decline: Some Surprises Across U.S. Cities." National Institute of
Justice Research In Brief. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Lattimore, Pam et al. (1997). "A Study of Homicide in Eight Cities." National Institute of Justice Working Paper. Washington
D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Roth, Jeffrey & Christopher Koper. (1997). "Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection
Act of 1994." Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute. See also: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Proceedings from National Conference
on Criminal History Records: Brady and Beyond. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Sherman, Lawrence; Denise Gottfredson, Doris MacKenzie, John Eck, Peter Reuter, & Shawn Bushway. (1997). "Preventing Crime:
What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising." A Report to the United States Congress. Prepared for the National Institute of
Justice by the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of
- National Institute of Justice. (1996). "Communities: Mobilizing Against Crime Making Partnerships Work." National Institute
of Justice Journal. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice
- Pfeiffer, Christian. (1997). "Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Violence in European Countries." Germany: Kriminilogisches Forschungsinstitut
- Hendrick, D. (1996). "Canadian Crime Statistics." Juristat, V.16, No.10. Also in Bureau of Justice Statistics International Crime Statistics Program. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department
- Pfeiffer, Christian. (1997). "Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Violence in European Countries." Germany: Kriminilogisches Forschungsinstitut
- Earls, Felton J. & Christy A. Visher. 1997. "Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods: A Research Update." National
Institute Research In Brief. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Sampson, Robert & Stephen Raudenbush & Felton Earls. 1997. "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective
Efficacy." Science, Vol.277. American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- Butterfield, Fox. "Study Links Rate of Violence to Cohesion in Community." New York Times. August 17, 1997.
- Adler, Freda. 1983. Nations Not Obsessed With Crime. (Comparative Criminal Law Project, Wayne State University Law School, Publication Series, v.15).
- Hawkins, David. (1995). "Controlling Crime Before It Happens: Risk-Focused Prevention." National Institute of Justice Journal.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
Date Created: December 3, 2007