Speech at the 1997 Meeting of the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Program

National and Comparative Perspectives on Juvenile Violence

Jeremy Travis
Director of the National Institute of Justice
October 4, 1997
Courmayeur, Italy

Dear Colleagues:

I am deeply honored by the invitation to address this international conference and wish to express my gratitude to the Executive Committee of ISPAC and its Chairman, Dr. Gerhard O.W. Mueller, and to its organizer, Prof. Alex Schmidt, for extending the invitation. The topic that this conference intends to address could not be more timely. In our emerging global community, it is imperative that we develop a deeper intellectual understanding of violent crime and the conflicts that afflict our society. So I commend ISPAC for convening this impressive group of researchers and practitioners to help develop that understanding. As important, I believe, is the second half of the theme of this conference -- "towards early warning and prevention mechanisms" -- for it is equally important and compelling that we learn about the successes of those communities that have developed effective strategies to prevent violent crime and deter conflict. Hopefully, these two activities can be linked in our thinking -- as we develop more sophisticated understanding of the underlying factors associated with violence, we should also commit ourselves to translating that knowledge into a sound foundation for action. I believe this is our responsibility as citizens of our communities.

I have taken the liberty of narrowing the focus of our discussion. I hope that this approach will complement the presentation of Prof. Alex Schmidt. My purpose this morning is to address the phenomenon of violent crime by focusing on juvenile violence. Although my remarks will be centered on a discussion of juvenile violence in the United States, I will draw upon some recent research that compares the rates of juvenile violence in the United States with rates in other countries. I find these comparisons very provocative and hope that they stimulate discussion at this conference. Finally, I wish to address the prevention portion of the conference theme by reporting on recent findings of a major research study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice.


In the United States, the topic of juvenile violence has been the subject of an overheated debate. Some American commentators have warned that we face a "bloodbath" as the next birth cohort enters the crime-prone years. Some predict that we will experience a generation of remorseless "superpredators" unlike any young criminals we have seen before. On the other end of the political spectrum, commentators of different persuasions observe that only a small percentage of young people engage in crime, decry any increase in criminal penalties as misguided retributivism, and draw lines in the ideological sand at any mention of curfews, truancy enforcement or metal detectors in schools.

To sort through these competing claims, our first task is to define the problem of juvenile crime. We should put the phenomenon of juvenile crime -- particularly violent juvenile crime -- in the context of America’s crime problem.

Prof. James Q. Wilson recently observed that America’s crime problem is actually two problems -- violent crime and everything else.3

Recently published research conducted by Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins allows us to make even broader statements about the comparability of nonviolent crime rates. In their book, Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America,4 Zimring and Hawkins describe a series of new victimization surveys asking the same question in many different countries. According to this study, the rates of theft, burglary and even non-aggravated assault reported in the United States are rarely more than 30 percent above those of 18 developed, Western nations. According to Jan van Dijk and Pat Mayhew, who studied the 1996 International Crime Victims Survey in their publication Criminal Victimization in Eleven Industrialized Countries,5 countries such as England, Canada, and the Netherlands experience higher rates of burglary than the United States. And England, Scotland, and France all have higher rates of theft from, and of, cars than the United States. In short, although the differences in non-violent crime rates between Western nations remain worthy of academic inquiry, it is important to recognize that the United States experience with non-violent crime is fundamentally quite similar to the experience of other Western nations.

A comparison of the experiences of the United States with violent crime and those of other nations is quite sobering. According to victimization surveys, while there are more crimes and more criminals in London than in New York City, the homicide rate in New York City is more than ten times that in London.7 So we should not take too much comfort in the distinction between violent and nonviolent crime rates, because lethal violence is frequently the outcome of a criminal incident. This nexus between violent and non violent crime has profound consequences for criminal justice policies and for the justifiable levels of fear in our society engendered by crime.

Before returning to a discussion of comparisons between crime in the United States and in other countries, I would like first to focus on the historical picture of violent crime in the United States. As I mentioned earlier, the important story in the United States has been the rapid increase, then the rapid decline, in violent crime over the past decade. I believe that the best way to understand this phenomenon is to understand the story within the story -- this is the story of juvenile violence.

Criminologists have long known that criminal behavior peaks in the late teenage years. Yet juvenile offending patterns have shown some atypical phenomena recently. Over the past twenty years in the United States, robbery and burglary rates for juveniles have remained basically the same, but something significant has happened with violence committed by juveniles. As the third chart in the handout shows, between the years 1985 and 1992, after years of steady decline, the homicide rate for defendants under age 24 increased significantly, with the rate of increase inversely related to age. For defendants age 18, the rate doubled. For 20-22 year old defendants the homicide rate also increased significantly, while homicide rates for 24 year olds remained the same. As the fourth chart shows, during the same seven year period, the number of juvenile homicides committed with handguns also doubled. Finally, during the same period, the arrest rate for nonwhite juveniles for drug offense more than doubled.8

What happened in the mid-80's in dozens of American cities to explain these unprecedented changes in behavior? The most plausible theory, for me, is the introduction of "crack" cocaine during these years. Saying that "crack" is the answer still does not provide an explanation for the surge in youth violence. Prof. Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University has developed a hypothesis that, to me, has great facial validity, called the "diffusion hypothesis": that, as new crack entrepreneurs were setting up business, taking over turf previously dominated by others, they recruited young people as sellers and middle managers, then these low level dealers needed handguns to defend themselves, and the guns, once in the hands of impulsive adolescents, quickly "diffused" into the youth culture so that everyday adolescent squabbles over girlfriends and valuable clothing got settled by gunfire.9

This theory strikes me as reasonable -- and at the National Institute of Justice we are funding research to test it. This deadly mixture of kids, guns, drugs and gangs quickly lead to the rash of senseless killings, drive-by shootings, guns in schools that confronted American cities through much of the past decade.

This deadly mixture has had a particularly devastating impact upon America’s inner cities and the minority community. By the middle of the decade of the 1980's, the homicide rates for young African-American males were rising at dramatic rates, while the rate for white males was rising at a much slower rate. For black males in their middle teen years, the homicide rate is more than ten times that for whites.11 We have not begun to confront the consequence of this reach of crime and the criminal law into black America.

Given these dire findings about the rates of violence -- particularly juvenile violence -- in America, how should we think about the future? Some academic commentators have looked at these data and have predicted the advent of a crime wave in the years to come. To me, this prediction masks a very disturbing presumption. Why do we assume that the crime wave of violent juveniles we experienced in the 80's will be followed by another wave of ever more violent youths?

It is certainly true that the number of juveniles in the crime prone years will increase in the United States. In fact, these children have already been born. By the year 2005, the number of teenagers between 14 and 17 will increase by 14 percent, with even greater percentage increases among minorities living in our inner cities.12 Those who have predicted a dire future have assumed that the RATE of juvenile crime will increase -- or remain constant -- and this increased NUMBER of teenagers engaging in violence at these higher rates will cause a "bloodbath".

Yet demography is not destiny. Indeed, I think the responsible position for public officials is to try to defeat these pessimistic prognostications -- for this reason, I applaud this conference’s emphasis on prevention and early warning systems. It is important to note that the recent experiences of several American cities provide grounds for optimism. In New York City, the homicide rate has dropped precipitously: in 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City, my home town, last year (1996) there were 986, a decline of 56%, and if the current trends hold for this year, there will be approximately 785 homicides in New York City, making it one of the safest cities in the United States.14 This may strike our international colleagues as an event of little note, but against the backdrop of a seemingly endless funerals for young men in our inner cities, this is a major victory.*

I do not want to leave the impression that violent crime is declining in every American city -- in fact, crime continues to increase in several major cities. Yet, a closer look at recent national data confirm that we are making progress. Over the past two years, juvenile crime has fallen substantially -- by seven percent in 1995 alone.18 If this trend continues, much of the increase in juvenile violence we witnessed during the early phase of the crack epidemic will be eliminated within a few years.

*Because there has been such international interest in these declines, allow me to suggest four contributing factors. First, as NIJ research has documented, there have been significant declines in the use of crack cocaine in several American cities.23


I find it fascinating -- and potentially revealing -- that the increase in juvenile violence is not unique to the United States. In America, we are struggling to develop our own theories to explain our surge in juvenile violence. We have focused on variables that appear to be uniquely American -- particularly the advent of "crack cocaine" in the mid-1980's, our tragic history of criminal gun violence, the presence and growth of criminal gangs in many of our cities. Yet these theories seem only partially helpful when we consider the increases in juvenile violence in countries that have no experience with "crack", have no widespread circulation of guns, and do not have a history of criminogenic gangs.

At the request of the Ministry of the Interior in the Netherlands, Dr. Christian Pfeiffer of the Kriminilogisches Forschungsinstitut von Niedersachsen recently completed a comparison of juvenile crime rates in ten European countries.24 While there was little or no increase in the number of juvenile suspects in the early 1980's, Pfeiffer found that in the 1990's -- and usually beginning in the mid-1980's -- there has been a sharp increase in violent crimes committed by young people, as reported by the police in England & Wales, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, France, Denmark, Switzerland and Poland. Data from all of these countries show greater increases in violent crime rates among juveniles than among young adults. And the increases have been substantial -- youth violence has risen in all of these countries by at least 50% since 1986, and by more than 100% in a majority of them.

The profiles of some of the countries covered in this report are particularly interesting. At the low end, Austria experienced a 10.3% increase in juvenile homicidal and assault offenses between 1990 and 1995, in comparison to a 43% increase in offenses involving robbery, and a 27% increase in crimes against property. France experienced a 86.7% increase in violent juvenile crimes between 1984 and 1994. Adding together offenses involving robbery and assault, there was an overall increase of 143% among juveniles in contrast to a 31% increase for adults. In Italy, violent youth crimes committed against the person increased by 213% between 1986 and 1993, and offenses involving robbery increased by 118%. In Germany, violent juvenile crime doubled between 1989 and 1995, and most of the juvenile violent crime involved victims of the same age group. In the Netherlands, between 1985 and 1995, juvenile offenses of violence against the person increased by 123%, and police-registered youth violence in Holland was 2.5 times higher in 1995 that in 1985.

In Canada, a country not included in the Pfeiffer study, although the youth charge rate in Canada remained stable in 1995, following three consecutive annual decreases, the rate at which young people were charged with violent crime increased by 2.4 percent, and in 1995, the juvenile violent crime rate was twice as high as it was in 1986.25

These findings are very important because they compel us to ask fundamental questions about the relationship between our society and our young people. How can we explain the European trends? Professor Pfieffer, in his report, offers his own hypotheses.26 He points to several possible contributing factors. He asserts that the increase in relative poverty in these countries, and what he calls, "advancing social disintegration," are important contributors. He also points to the increasing reliance upon stricter, more punitive criminal justice responses to juvenile violence, with decreased use of diversion and prevention programs. This shift, he argues, accentuates and reflects a tendency toward social exclusion of young people and the decrease in supportive social networks. He also points to the increase in drug abuse problems in several European countries.

I will leave it to our European colleagues to discuss these trends and their explanation. However, it is my hope that the international community of scholars will test these and other competing hypotheses and will engage our American colleagues in that debate. It is critically important that we seize this moment when we have a relatively solid empirical understanding of the phenomenon of juvenile violence to develop hypotheses, design interventions based on those hypotheses, and test those interventions to determine how best to turn the tide. I hope that this conference will contribute to this important international discussion.


I would like to end my remarks by sharing some relevant findings from a major study being sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, and co-funded by the Macarthur Foundation. This research effort, called the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, is the most ambitious study of the relationship between community, crime, delinquency, family and individual development now underway in the United States. At the community level, the Project has surveyed more than 8,700 adult residents in 343 neighborhoods throughout Chicago. In addition, researchers have identified 80 neighborhoods as the focus for a longitudinal cohort study to be conducted over the next eight years. As part of the first wave of this longitudinal study, researchers have conducted interviews with 7,000 children and adolescents and their primary caregivers.27

Over the next several years, we will be reaping the rich rewards of this ambitious research project. Last month, the research team, headed by Dr. Felton Earls of the Harvard School of Public Health, published their first findings in Science magazine.29

This finding of collective efficacy is important standing alone, but it is doubly important when placed in context. Collective efficacy, when assessing predictors of violence, has an impact OVER AND ABOVE traditional predictors such as race/ethnic composition, poverty and residential instability.

I do not mean to suggest that the Chicago study is charting totally unexplored territory. Prof. Freda Adler, in her book entitled Nations Not Obsessed with Crime,30 published in 1983, compares five pairs of countries, representing different regions of the globe and a broad range of socioeconomic and politicocultural systems. However, all 10 countries had low crime rates. Specifically, the countries under study were Switzerland and Ireland, Bulgaria and the German Democratic Republic, Costa Rica and Peru, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, and Japan and Nepal. Despite all their differences, all ten countries appear to share success in maintaining or creating informal social control mechanisms that assist in preserving and transmitting shared values. The analysis of the effectiveness of the social control systems concludes that social solidarity -- what Prof. Adler refers to as "synomie" -- is the essential feature of the society in countries with low crime rates. In contrast to social anomie and disharmony, in a synomic society, there is a sharing of values.

The Chicago Study also builds upon the work of David Hawkins and Richard Catalano who have identified the risk factors and protective factors associated with juvenile violence. These are factors at the community level, in the family, in school, and in the individual that either put young people at risk of violence or protect them against the effects or exposure to risk.31

Yet the Chicago study is important because of the ambition of its analytical approach and the rigor of its quantitative analysis. We hope it will provide a strong theoretical basis for developing the interventions that will strengthen the ability of communities to reduce conflict and violence, the important second theme of this conference. I thank you for this invitation and hope that these observations provoke useful discussion during the conference.


  1. Wilson, James Q. "What Can Be Done about the Scourge of Violence among Juveniles?" New York Times, Col. 1, Pg. 24, Sec. A, Friday December 30 1994.

  2. Zimring, Franklin & Gordon Hawkins. (1997). Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

  3. Mayhew, Pat & Jan van Dijk. (1997). Criminal Victimization in Eleven Industrialized Countries. Germany: WODC.

  4. Zimring, Franklin & Gordon Hawkins. (1997). "Lethal Violence and the Overreach of American Imprisonment." NIJ Research Report.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Blumstein, Alfred. (1995). "Violence by Young People: Why the Deadly Nexus?" National Institute of Justice Journal. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

  7. Blumstein, Alfred. 1995. "Youth Violence, Guns, and the Illicit-Drug Industry." The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology. Vol.86, No.1. Northwestern University School of Law.

  8. Hagan, John. (1997)."Youth Violence: Children at Risk." American Sociological Association Congressional Seminar. Washington, DC.

  9. The Sentencing Project. (1995). "Race, Ethnicity, and the Criminal Justice System." Young Black Men and the Criminal Justice System: A Growing National Problem. Washington, DC.

  10. Law Enforcement News. "Just How Should We Deal With Youth Crime?" December 31, 1996. John Jay School of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

  11. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

  12. Kennedy, David. (1997). "Pulling Levers: Chronic Offenders, High-Crime Settings, and a Theory of Prevention." Valparaiso Law Review.Vol.31, No.2.

  13. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1995). National Crime Victimization Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  14. Federal Bureau of Investigations. (1995). Uniform Crime Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Golub, Andrew Lang & Bruce D. Johnson. (1997). "Crack’s Decline: Some Surprises Across U.S. Cities." National Institute of Justice Research In Brief. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  18. Lattimore, Pam et al. (1997). "A Study of Homicide in Eight Cities." National Institute of Justice Working Paper. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  19. Roth, Jeffrey & Christopher Koper. (1997). "Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994." Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute. See also: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Proceedings from National Conference on Criminal History Records: Brady and Beyond. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  20. Sherman, Lawrence; Denise Gottfredson, Doris MacKenzie, John Eck, Peter Reuter, & Shawn Bushway. (1997). "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising." A Report to the United States Congress. Prepared for the National Institute of Justice by the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  21. National Institute of Justice. (1996). "Communities: Mobilizing Against Crime Making Partnerships Work." National Institute of Justice Journal. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice

  22. Pfeiffer, Christian. (1997). "Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Violence in European Countries." Germany: Kriminilogisches Forschungsinstitut von Niedersachsen.

  23. Hendrick, D. (1996). "Canadian Crime Statistics." Juristat, V.16, No.10. Also in Bureau of Justice Statistics International Crime Statistics Program. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  24. Pfeiffer, Christian. (1997). "Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Violence in European Countries." Germany: Kriminilogisches Forschungsinstitut von Niedersachsen.

  25. Earls, Felton J. & Christy A. Visher. 1997. "Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods: A Research Update." National Institute Research In Brief. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  26. Sampson, Robert & Stephen Raudenbush & Felton Earls. 1997. "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy." Science, Vol.277. American Association for the Advancement of Science.

  27. Butterfield, Fox. "Study Links Rate of Violence to Cohesion in Community." New York Times. August 17, 1997.

  28. Adler, Freda. 1983. Nations Not Obsessed With Crime. (Comparative Criminal Law Project, Wayne State University Law School, Publication Series, v.15).

  29. Hawkins, David. (1995). "Controlling Crime Before It Happens: Risk-Focused Prevention." National Institute of Justice Journal. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
Date Created: December 3, 2007