Is Crime Up Among Pre-Teens?

By Susan Black

Last November, an 8-year-old boy confessed to murder. He told police in St. Johns, an Arizona community of 4,000 located northeast of Phoenix, that he’d shot his father and another man with a .22-caliber rifle.

In the days after the murders, police and prosecutors were still sorting evidence and checking the boy’s confession, but public verdicts about the child’s culpability, and conjecture about the child’s motive, proliferated on talk shows and in the blogosphere.

Some individuals expressed sympathy for the child, certain that he’d pulled the trigger for “good reason.” Some suspected that the boy killed to put a stop to ongoing abuse. Others took a hardened stance. One blogger wrote, “The kid is a killer who should spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.” Many claimed that juvenile crime was increasing, especially among very young children.

Is preteen crime increasing?

Jeffrey Butts, a researcher at the Chapin Hall Center for Children, an independent policy research center at the University of Chicago, and Howard Snyder, former chief of research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, recently studied preteen crime. They sought answers to these questions:

• What proportion of all juvenile crime is committed by children under age 13? Has that proportion changed since 1980, the year records became available?

• How do trends in preteen arrests compare with trends in arrests for teens under age 18?

• How does the profile of preteen crime compare with the profile of crimes committed by older juveniles?

Contrary to widespread public perception, the proportion of juvenile crimes committed by offenders younger than 13 has remained relatively “small and stable,” Butts and Snyder discovered. In 1980, preteens represented 7 percent of all juvenile arrests; in 2006, they represented 6 percent. Since 1980, preteen arrests in most offense categories have declined.

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