Homicide cases in juvenile courts around the U.S. jumped by 35 percent between 2014 and 2018, the Justice Department says in a new report.
The increase is surprising because it happened during a period in which totals in many crime categories were declining.
In fact, a separate report issued last week on juvenile arrest data emphasized that in 2018, law enforcement agencies made the fewest arrests of juveniles in nearly four decades, an estimated 728,280 arrests of youths under 18.
Like the court data, the FBI’s annual compilation of reports from local law enforcement agencies showed that arrests of juveniles for homicide spiked 21 percent between 2014 and 2018.
The total peaked in 1996, when it was well above 2,500,000.
Still, homicide is the most serious crime, so an increase in that category is notable.
Experts who follow the trends could not provide a complete explanation for the large homicide rise, but they offered clues. Criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, who has followed juvenile crime trends for many years, called it “disconcerting.”
Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis said he believes the increase tracks an overall increase in homicides in 2014 and 2015.
In a paper published last year, Rosenfeld and Fox said the causes could not be determined conclusively, but the increase in cases involving blacks in urban areas was partly caused by “ruptures in police–community relations resulting from controversial incidents of police violence against unarmed young black men.”
As for a parallel increase in homicides among whites and in rural areas, they said a “significant contributor” was drug-related killings resulting from the opioid epidemic.
There are no precise national measures of juvenile crime. Many people who report crimes say that a young person committed it, but do not know whether the offender was legally a juvenile.
The National Crime Victimization Survey, which provides estimates of crime based on interviews asking a sample of Americans whether they have been victimized in the previous year, estimated about 800,000 violent non-homicide crimes committed by youths 17 and younger each year.
In 45 states, the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction is age 17. Five states– Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin–now draw the juvenile/adult line at age 16.
The age will rise to 17 next year in Michigan and Missouri, says the National Conference of State Legislatures, and four other states raised their maximum ages between 2016 and 2019.
This is one factor in the rise in juvenile homicide cases, because in some states, a 17-year-old arrested for murder once was legally considered an adult and now is classified as a juvenile.
Age changes must account for some of the rise in youth homicide arrests, but how much of it is not clear.
Northeastern’s Fox compiled a state-by-state breakdown of the arrest increase and found that the largest change was in Texas, which recorded 57 such cases in 2014 and 101 in 2018. (That was the last year for which national crime data have been published.)
The state with the next-highest total was California, with 70, but that was the same figure as reported in 2014.
The juvenile data are compiled for the Justice Department by the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice, the research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Its director, Melissa Sickmund, did not offer a reason for the homicide arrest increase, but she noted that after peaking in the high-crime early 1990s, the national total of such cases has been fairly flat in the 21st century and that the actual number of cases is relatively low, about 1,000.
The vast majority of juvenile court cases involve crimes less serious than homicide, and the total number of delinquency cases handled by juvenile courts in 2018 was fewer than the total from 1969, a decline Sickmund termed “quite amazing.”
Of the estimated total juvenile cases in 2018—744,500—the leading categories are crimes against people, 232,400 (mostly assault), property crimes, 225,900, and “public order” (such as disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice), 185,100.
There continues to be a racial disparity in juvenile crime cases, with the rate at which black youth are referred to court remaining nearly 3 times the rate for white youth.
One of the new reports compared data from 2015 and 2018, finding that delinquency case rates declined for youth of all racial groups during that period: 53 percent for whites, 49 percent for blacks, 60 percent for Hispanics, 49 percent for American Indians, and 72 percent for Asians.
About 15 percent of the youth population is black, but blacks accounted for 33 percent of juvenile court cases in 2005 and 35 percent in 2018, the report said.
The number of cases in which youths were held in custody declined 52 percent between 2005 and 2018.
Because all of the newly reported data far predated the current coronavirus pandemic, it will not be clear for some time how much COVID-19 has affected the nation’s rates of juvenile crime and detention.
During the first month that the pandemic swept across the U.S., the number of juveniles in pretrial detention fell by nearly a quarter, according to a survey of government agencies in 30 states released in April.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report