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Why We're Needed

The juvenile crime rate has fallen nationally in recent years, but juvenile crime remains a problem. In 1998, children between the ages of 12 and 17 committed 616,000 serious violent crimes in the United States-a rate of 27 crimes for every 1,000 juveniles in that age range. (Source citations for all of the statistics quotes on this page are available in our prospectus.) The following year, juveniles were responsible for 12.4% of all violent crime committed nationwide.

Delinquency and age

As children grow older, they are more likely to be charged with criminal conduct. In 1997, children younger than thirteen were responsible for 26% of juvenile delinquency case nationwide; thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds accounted for 10%. By contrast, children older than fourteen made up 63% of the delinquency caseload.

Delinquency and race

Arrest rates among racial minorities are disproportionately high. Although only 15% of all juveniles nationwide were black in 1999, black children accounted for 27% of property crime arrests and 57% of arrests for violent crime. Black youth were also much more likely than whites to be held in detention facilities. In 1997, 44% of cases where detention resulted involved black juveniles, even though black youth comprised only 31% of all delinquency cases that year. "This overrepresentation was greatest for drug offenses," according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: "black youth accounted for 32% of all drug cases processed but 55% of drug cases detained." Overall, being black rather than white doubles a child's chances of being held in secure detention.

Risk factors

There are several risk factors for juvenile delinquency. Addressing these risk factors could help reduce delinquency.

Abuse and neglect

Children who have been abused or neglected are far more likely than other children are to commit delinquent acts. According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 70% of children in juvenile court have been abused or neglected. Among prison inmates, 70-80% have a history of child abuse or neglect.

Substance abuse

Drug use is another risk factor for delinquency. A recent study found that 34-44% of males who were characterized as "serious delinquents" also were persistent drug users; the same was true of 46-48% of female delinquents. Use of cigarettes, alcohol and tobacco increases as children grow older. In 1999, 8% of eighth-graders smoked cigarettes daily, 15% drank heavily, and 12% used illicit drugs. Among tenth-graders, 16% were daily smokers, 26% were heavy drinkers, and 22% were drug users. By twelfth grade, the figures were 23% for cigarettes, 31% for alcohol and 26% for illicit drugs.

Educational problems

Educational problems are a third risk factor for juvenile delinquency. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention notes that "[a] long history of research has demonstrated a relationship between school problems (poor academic performance, truancy, and dropping out) and delinquency." Given this connection, efforts to decrease juvenile delinquency need to address children's educational needs.

The school performance gap between whites and racial minorities has long been a cause for concern among educators. One study notes, "White students consistently have had higher reading and mathematics scores than either black or Hispanic students at ages 9, 13, and 17." Similarly, black and Hispanic students are more likely than are whites to drop out of high school. The high school completion rate among whites was 90% in 1998, slightly higher than the 81% rate among blacks and much higher than the 63% rate among Hispanics.

Given these disparities, it is unsurprising that young racial minorities encounter joblessness more frequently than white youth. In 1999, according to a report from ChildStats.gov, "13 percent of black, non-Hispanic youth and 14 percent of Hispanic youth were neither in school nor working, compared with 6 percent of white, non-Hispanic youth." This detachment from school and work becomes especially pronounced among older adolescents: The percentage of all youth who were neither enrolled in school nor working in 1999 was only 4% among sixteen- to seventeen-year-olds but jumped to 13% among eighteen- to nineteen-year-olds.

The costs of delinquency

Juvenile delinquency imposes enormous costs on society and on the local, state and federal governments. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that in from 1988 to 1997, the number of delinquency cases handled by juvenile courts nationwide increased by 48% to an astonishing 1.8 million cases involving 1.2 million individual juveniles. The result is that in 1997, juvenile courts were processing 1,6000 more cases each day than they were nine years earlier. This increase requires greater government expenditures on public safety, law enforcement, criminal investigations, prosecutions, judicial resources, incarceration, probation services and other court supervision. It exacts a toll both on the victims of juvenile crime and on the families of juveniles accused of criminal conduct. And when children face delinquency charges their schooling often is interrupted, increasing the likelihood that they will fail to complete high school--which can lead to unemployment, poverty and future criminal activity, all of which cause a further strain on government resources.


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