Juvenile Crime Surges, Reversing Long Decline
Dan Frosch and Zusha Ellinson, Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2023
Violence among children has soared across the country since 2020, a stark reversal of a decadeslong decline in juvenile crime.
In the U.S., homicides committed by juveniles acting alone rose 30% in 2020 from a year earlier, while those committed by multiple juveniles increased 66%. The number of killings committed by children under 14 was the highest in two decades, according to the most recent federal data.
One consequence is a mounting toll of young victims. The number of juveniles killing other juveniles was the highest it has been in more than two decades, the 2020 federal data show.
Kyhara was one of 153 victims in New York City under the age of 18 shot in 2022, the most in at least six years and more than the 127 total minors shot in 2018 and 2019 combined, according to police data. The 13-year-old boy being pursued was unharmed, authorities say.
In New York City, police said 124 juveniles committed shootings during 2022, up from 62 in 2020 and 48 in 2019.
“The tragedy here is that we’re talking about a gunman who is too young to be called a gunman because he’s 15 years old,” said Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark after Kyhara’s death. “These ages make you weep.”
The jump comes amid an overall wave of violent crime in the first two years of the pandemic—particularly homicides and shootings—that swept through urban and rural areas alike.
Police, prosecutors and community groups attribute much of the youth violence to broad disruptions that started with the pandemic and lockdowns. Schools shut down, depriving students of structure in daily life, as did services for troubled children. Increased stress compounded a swelling mental-health crisis. Social-media conflicts increasingly turned deadly.
Easier access to firearms for juveniles has also played a role, including the rise of homemade ghost guns and a surge in illegal firearms trafficking. Heightened gang activity was a factor too in some places such as New York City, authorities say.
The nationwide wave began to ebb in 2022, but in some communities, shootings involving minors have continued to surge. In Washington, D.C., there were 214 firearm-related arrests of children in 2022, a higher count than each of the prior three years. Sixteen juveniles were shot to death last year in the district, compared with nine in 2021.
Dora Villarreal, the top prosecutor in Rock Island County, Ill., said she has never seen such young teens so frequently involved in shootings and firearms cases in her county of about 143,000. “During Covid, without school being a constant kind of stabilizing structure for many of our kids, that has helped lead unfortunately to this rise in violent crime,” she said.
Since schools reopened, the arrests have continued to rise. Ms. Villarreal said residual impacts of the pandemic—including mental-health issues, drug abuse and the breakdown of routines—have all contributed. In 2020, 36 juveniles were arrested for gun-related cases in her county. As of late December 2022, the number was 64.
Last year, a total of 117 juveniles were arrested for shootings in Philadelphia, up from 43 in 2019, according to police.
They include a 14-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy both charged with murder after they were allegedly involved in a September gun battle outside a West Philadelphia recreation center in the middle of the day. Tiffany Fletcher, a 41-year-old employee of the center and a mother of three, was outside when she was fatally struck by a stray bullet.
The city council recently made permanent a 10 p.m. summertime curfew for teens from ages 14 to 17. “The new curfew law is meant to protect young people from being victims of crime while the City works towards other measures that reduce gun violence,” said City Councilor Katherine Gilmore Richardson, who proposed the measure, in a written statement.
The rise in juvenile shootings hasn’t been limited to the biggest cities. Peoria, Ill., population 112,000, saw eight juvenile homicide victims in 2021, according to police data. In 2020, there were none.
Edmund Mallqui-Burgos, chief juvenile prosecutor in Atlantic County, N.J., which includes Atlantic City, said he was struck by several recent cases where young teens who seemed to be on the right track committed shootings.
One involved a 13-year-old boy who shot and wounded two men, ages 30 and 34, in broad daylight on a busy Atlantic City street before getting into an hourlong standoff with the city’s SWAT team this past July.
Mr. Mallqui-Burgos was set to charge him as a juvenile for attempted murder—in New Jersey, prosecutors can try juveniles as adults only if they’re 15 or older. But he found out that the boy had never been involved in criminal activity before, was working a job to earn money for his family and feared for his safety during the encounter with the older men.
“This was a kid who seemed like he was doing the right thing,” Mr. Mallqui-Burgos said. “This was not a gangbanger type of situation.”
Some prosecutors and law enforcement leaders argue that the shift away from a more punitive approach for juveniles toward intervention programs and rehabilitation has gone too far and corrections are needed.
Ms. Clark, the Bronx district attorney and a Democrat, supported a 2017 New York law that ended the automatic prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, raising the age to 18. Most states had already passed similar “Raise the Age” laws.
Now, Ms. Clark said, she wants to be able to try more gun possession cases in criminal court, which would allow her office more authority over what sentences to seek. She said under the Raise the Age law, too many juveniles arrested on gun possession charges are being released quickly because such cases are typically sent to family court—and some of those minors are going on to commit more serious crimes or are being murdered themselves.
Her office cited the case of a 17-year-old who was arrested three separate times on gun possession charges and sent to family court each time, before being arrested for murder, all within 12 months.