A bailout for at-risk youth

James Alan Fox

December 5 , 2007


The customary year-end scorecard of city homicide tallies from around the USA always seems to reveal some winners and losers, and this past year was no exception. According to an Associated Press survey of city murder counts, Chicago, Seattle and Kansas City reported some of the largest increases in 2008 over the previous year, while Los Angeles, Detroit and Baltimore saw substantial drops.


Notwithstanding the political significance given to such short-term fluctuations, these indicators are extremely ambiguous. A one-year drop in a city's homicides often reflects a simple correction following an unusually elevated figure from the year before. Likewise, a sharp upturn can reflect a hangover effect following an unusually light year.


What does a longer-term look at murder statistics tell us about genuine trends?


As a nation, we continue to enjoy a low homicide rate compared with 15 years ago, when the murder rate was nearly twice what it is today. And following a low point in 2000, the rate has changed little, having increased by slightly more than 1% in seven years, during which time city-to-city figures have cycled up and down almost at random.


A rise in murders


Obscured within these national and city figures, however, is a surging rate of murder by and against young black males. Over the past five years, the number of juvenile black male perpetrators increased from nearly 800 to almost 1,150. In human terms this translates, on average, to one additional assailant per day.


Critics have tried to discount this disturbing pattern by noting that population has increased as well. Even so, an 11.5% growth over the same five years in the young black male population cannot account for most of the 43% rise in murderous behavior.


Though there is no debating the grim figures, the causes and solutions are hotly contested. Many experts suggest that the fundamental problem among black youth lands right at the doorstep of home and family. Underage parents, single mothers, absent fathers and disinterested caretakers all contribute to a continuing cycle of despair. While outspoken leaders, from Bill Cosby to President Obama, talk about change that must come from within the black community, these core issues cannot explain why the crime problem has grown so dramatically in just a few years.


What can be done


We must change our priorities with regard to social programs and intervention. At the federal level in the past, aggressive efforts have been made to confront youth crime. But over the past several years, federal support for policing, juvenile justice and crime prevention has been cut in half. At the same time, Congress has severely handcuffed efforts to control secondary gun markets that feed the youth gun trade.


Reinvesting in the policing and prevention programs that worked successfully in the past can reverse the current spate of street and gang violence. Even though fundamental core problems in the black community persist, the Obama administration should help set an agenda, implemented at the state and local level, to:

• Increase police presence in high-crime neighborhoods.

• Expand the availability of youth enrichment and after-school programs

• Tighten controls on illegal gun markets and lift federal curbs on gun-tracing information.

The concerns over youngsters growing up in violence-ridden neighborhoods cannot wait years until the recession subsides. After efforts to bail out the banks and automakers, the government now needs to fund a bailout for at-risk youth.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.