When Kids Kill

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mug shots

A composite of mug shots from the Florida Department of Corrections and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. Courtesy Florida Times-Union

Two were only 13 years old. Three were just a few months shy of turning 18.

Four committed their crimes in this decade, and just as many have spent more than 30 years behind bars. At least two sold sex for money. One witnessed his father being shot. Another was given beer for the first time when he was four years old.

All but four had been arrested before. For most, they’d lost count of exactly how many times.

These Florida inmates and dozens more have much in common: They played a part in ending someone’s life; and those crimes happened when they were still children.

Duval County, known for years as Florida’s murder capital, also leads the state in kids who kill.

In the last decade, 73 Duval County children have been arrested in cases of murder and manslaughter.

Only one other county has more: Miami-Dade, which has nearly three times the youth population. Taking into account population differences, no other large county in Florida has a higher rate of minors arrested on these charges than Duval.

Last year here, four teenagers were arrested and charged as adults with second-degree murder. Two more kids — ages 11 and 14 — were charged in juvenile court with manslaughter, each in connection with the shooting deaths of other children. So far in 2018, two more teens have been charged in homicides.

Why is this happening? What leads kids and teens to kill?

And what, if anything, can be done about it?

To learn more, The Florida Times-Union spent more than 20 months examining juvenile homicide in Jacksonville. A major component of the reporting: listening to the people who committed the crimes.

The newspaper wrote letters to 103 of these inmates from Duval County. Fifty-seven wrote back. Of those, 25 answered an extensive survey about their lives developed by the newspaper in consultation with experts in mental health and criminal justice.

What these inmates reveal in hundreds of handwritten pages is wrenching in its repetition: Their fathers were absent. Their mothers and caregivers did the best they could, but struggled. They fell in with the wrong crowd. They slid into crime. They needed help they never received.

The reason so many kids commit murder in Jacksonville is not because they are murderers, but because they are everything else: drug dealers, robbers, thieves, rapists and a bunch of other types of criminals whose crimes of choice has a great likelihood of leading to a murder.”

The Times-Union’s research revealed four overarching contributing factors that are well known. What the newspaper’s research showed with stark clarity was the number of children who face many or all of these challenges:

Trauma. Most of the Duval County kids who end up convicted in a slaying have a history of distressing events happening around them and to them. It’s typically not just one or two bad things; trauma is often a constant companion in their homes, neighborhoods and schools.

Family dysfunction.The strain in families is often generational. Parents who were never parented appropriately will struggle to appropriately discipline and set expectations for their children. Eighty-four percent of survey respondents had divorced or separated parents, and just as many lived with someone who abused drugs or alcohol. More than half said they felt unloved or unimportant at home.

Violent environment.Violence is nothing new to most of the teens who end up in prison for killing. Eighty-four percent said they’ve been shot at and 72 percent had witnessed someone get shot. More than a third said a close family member had been murdered. 

Dangerous peer influences.When kids commit crimes, they’re more likely to do so with a friend or in a group. That’s true for 84 percent of the kids who took the Times-Union’s survey. Devoid of good role models and constructive things to do, teens will follow the stronger influence, not necessarily the positive one.

When these stressful and traumatic things happen early in life, they’re called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. Study after study have linked having more ACEs to a variety of worse outcomes in a person’s life, including illness, substance abuse, behavioral problems, criminality and even early death.

What are these adverse childhood experiences? They are: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, exposure to domestic violence, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, and incarceration of a family member.

Among the inmates who participated in the Times-Union’s survey, the average number of ACEs was more than 5; and 18 of the 25 men and women had four or more.

Many of those inmates contacted by the Times-Union expressed doubts that they had anything worthwhile to say, because, they asked, aren’t their stories all alike? Weren’t their experiences typical? How would that actually help anyone? No one had wanted to understand them before, some said.

“All the other prisoners you are writing to may have the same story as I do,” wrote Keith Shawn Hanks. He’s serving a life sentence for a murder committed at age 17, back in 1992. “So, do you really want to do a story on me?”

To them, their highly abnormal experiences were normal.

“We should be heartbroken,” said Carly Dierkhising, an assistant professor in the school of criminal justice at California State University, Los Angeles. “It is profoundly sad, and it also says a lot about our society and how we treat our youth.”

Jason Cooper put it another way.

“In the community of Jacksonville, kids (are) growing up thinking it’s all about street credibility, and (that) silly image along with gun play are mandatory in that life,” wrote Cooper, who was 17 when he shot and killed Wilson Sakudya in an Arlington apartment in 2007.

“If nothing happens to grab hold of that mindset, what you see now will always continue to be the same.”

This is a condensed version of a story written as part a project for the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship, in conjunction with the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Tessa Duvall, a staff writer for The Florida Times-Union, also served as a 2018 John Jay/Tow  Justice Reporting Fellow. The full series can be read here: http://gatehousenews.com/whenkidskill/home/site/jacksonville.com

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