08/22/2007

Juvenile violent crime higher than '06; steady with recent years

By Joel Currier and Tim O'Neil
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS, Mo. Decades ago, James Earl Tartt didn't fear sitting on his front stoop, watching the neighborhood kids scurry up and down his block.

These days, however, Tartt says he shutters himself inside his Semple Avenue house after dark because he's grown frightened of youngsters whose games increasingly include guns and drugs.

"These kids are going crazy," said Tartt, 64, a retired hospital worker who lives a block from where St. Louis police Officer Norvelle Brown was shot to death last week. "How do they get these guns?"

Charges that a 15-year-old pulled the trigger put fresh focus on the question of whether younger children are committing more violent crimes.

The arrest came barely a month after a 12-year-old boy was accused of fatally stabbing a 13-year-old girl in St. Louis.

But despite the high-profile examples, the incidence of violent crime by juveniles aged 14 to 17 remained relatively steady from 2000 to through 2005, nationally and locally.

Arrest rates for juveniles for murder and all other violent crimes also remain about half of those recorded during the urban crack-cocaine gang wars of the early 1990s.

In St. Louis, the rates of murders and other violent crime committed by juveniles have bobbed above and below the national averages through the first half of this decade, police figures show. Arrests of juveniles for murder in St. Louis jumped sharply in 2004 and 2005, with 19 and 18 suspects arrested respectively.

The number fell back to 11 last year.

Through July of this year, city officers had arrested eight juveniles in murder investigations. That suggests an annual rate higher than last year's but lower than in the two previous years.

Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, offered two observations that, at first, might appear contradictory.

"This murder (of Brown) is an awful event and an unusual event, in that it's very unusual for a 15-year-old to kill a police officer," Rosenfeld said. "We also shouldn't forget that juveniles and young adults have high rates of serious crimes."

But he also said there has been no marked change in the rate of violent crimes among juveniles in this decade. Even with national statistical information ending with 2005, he said, his sense is of no great change since then, either here or nationally.

The explanations for violent crime among youngsters are rooted in widespread poverty and a lack of parental guidance at home, experts say.

"It's sad that our young people are becoming younger and younger, committing these crimes," said Linda Thompson, director of the Neighborhood Outreach Center, a community organization just a few blocks southeast of the alley where Brown was shot. The center helps dropouts earn high school certificates, holds substance abuse meetings and provides clothing.

"These young people don't have a purpose," Thompson said. "They don't know why they're born. Some of them are so lost."

She said many teenagers who seek help there have grown up exposed to rape, assault and drug abuse in their own homes.

"Where are their parents?" she asked. "Evidently, they haven't been raised in loving, nurturing, Godly environments."

Violent juvenile offenders often fail to realize the harmful effects of their violent behavior, said Ray Grush, St. Charles County's family court administrator.

"I always say the definition of adolescence is irrational behavior - impulsive thinking," Grush said. "They tend to think of victims as inconsequential. When a person doesn't have empathy for another person, it's of no consequence to hurt them or maybe even take their life."

Judge James Radcliffe, who presides over St. Clair County's juvenile courts, said he has seen no evidence of increases in violent juvenile crime.

Melissa Sickmund, a research associate for the National Center on Juvenile Justice, said the rate of crime by juveniles nationally did rise by a small degree at mid-decade. She said the release of 2006 statistics next month should offer a better picture.

"But using statistics is like driving by looking through your rear-view mirror," said Sickmund. "Beginning in the mid-'90s, the numbers declined fairly steadily. Then it climbs a bit. Is it time to worry yet, or were the last few years a blip? People aren't sure."

The center, based in Pittsburgh, is sponsored by the nation's juvenile courts.

Teens and young adults on Semple Avenue seem to accept violent crime as a part of life.

"You always hear a lot of shooting, whether it's here, or the next block or the next block over," said a 20-year-old woman who lives on Semple a block from where Brown was shot. "This has been the worst summer ever."

Another resident, Cliff Wilson, 17, said, "It's the 'hood," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "It just happens. It's the 'hood."

Copyright 2007 The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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