Some of the most shocking and disturbing criminal cases involve children. But in these cases, the child is not the victim; the child is the individual accused of committing a crime. When a youngster or even a teenager commits a serious crime, it leaves many stunned and struggling to make sense of the major dichotomy. Society regards children as innocent, kind and vulnerable, but criminal acts stand in direct contrast to those social perceptions, resulting in a reality that's difficult to reconcile.
There is no shortage of serious crimes committed by children. In 1989, a seven-year-old child was shot and killed with a high-powered hunting rifle, fired by nine-year-old Cameron Kocher. It's said the pair had an argument when the seven-year-old girl went outside to play with another group of friends. Kocher's parents wouldn't allow him to play with the group, so he took his father's hunting rifle, loaded the weapon and fired at his playmate from the window of his home.
In another case, 15-year-old Nehemiah Griego gunned down his family in Albuquerque in 2013. The child, who was homeschooled, was upset with his mother, so he shot her in the head. He brought his brother to see his dead mother; he shot his sibling when the boy started crying. It's believed he then gunned down his two sisters before shooting his father as he returned home. He was caught after he went to church and told the staff that his family was dead.
Cases like these are perplexing and disturbing. And while child murders are relatively uncommon, juvenile crime as a whole accounts for a fairly significant portion of the crimes that are dealt with in the criminal justice system. So why do children commit crimes and how can we prevent kids from going down the “wrong path?”
What are the Risk Factors for Juvenile Crime?
There are a number of conditions that can serve as risk factors, increasing a child's chances of being involved in criminal activity. According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service website, the risk factors for child crimes include:
- Prenatal and perinatal factors, including prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs and congenital anomalies.
- Psychological, behavioral and mental factors, including aggression, hyperactivity, impulsiveness and delayed language development. Children who are a victim of abuse/neglect or are exposed to violence are more likely to exhibit antisocial behaviors, suffer from anxiety and depression, encounter challenges in school and abuse drugs or alcohol.
- Family structure, particularly children of parents with poor parenting skills, an abusive home and single-parent households where a child is left unsupervised for lengthy periods of time.
- Peer influences, particularly peer groups involving antisocial and delinquent peers. The peer influence can be amplified when the child has minimal interaction with their parent(s) or positive adult role models.
- School policies, especially suspension and expulsion. According to The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, suspension and expulsion actually resulted in an increase in delinquent behaviors.
- Neighborhood has been found to have a surprisingly significant impact on a child's likelihood of being involved in delinquent behaviors. “Sociological theories of deviance hypothesize that disorganized neighborhoods have weak social control networks; that weak social control, resulting from isolation among residents and high residential turnover, allows criminal activity to go unmonitored." (Herrenkohl et al., 2001:221).
Do Children Have a Sense of “Right” and “Wrong”?
At the heart of the criminal justice system are two concepts: “right” and “wrong.” It's common knowledge that the American justice system requires a defendant to know the difference between right and wrong if he or she is to be held responsible for their actions. So how does this come into play when exploring crimes committed by children?
Well, according to forensic psychiatrist Louis Kraus, based in Chicago's Rush Medical Center, a child will not develop a firm understanding of right and wrong until they're five or six years old. It is around this age that children begin to truly understand “right” and “wrong,” as evidenced by the development of a sense of remorse.
But trauma, abuse, and even malnutrition can impact a child's emotional development and physical brain development, resulting in delays and impairments. In fact, the brain does not stop developing until an individual is in their early 20s. Subsequently, some children may not develop a sense of remorse until they're older; in rare cases, an individual may never experience remorse or compassion.
Martha Grace Duncan, a professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, points out that the criminal justice system's treatment of children does not fall in line with this reality. A child who is remorseful is typically treated and viewed as a child, whereas a child who does not exhibit remorse is typically viewed as more mature and they're more likely to be prosecuted as an adult. The reality is the child without remorse may actually be less developed than the contrite child who exhibits feelings of guilt.
Positive and Negative Role Models and Child Crime
As a child, you are impressionable and molded by those who surround you. Positive role models demonstrate positive, desirable behaviors that are in turn, modeled by the child. But if a child is surrounded by negative role models, the youngster may be led to believe that these negative or harmful behaviors are acceptable and “normal.” Ultimately, the adults in a child's life will determine how that child views the world and society as a whole. They also impact the child's moral compass; their sense of good and bad, right and wrong.
Peers also play a major role in a child's behaviors, development and their criminal involvement (or lack thereof.) Those who are surrounded by children who are respectful to adults, good students and involved within their communities will feel pressure to fit in and do the same. Conversely, if a child is surrounded by peers who come from dysfunctional homes and lack guidance, direction, and ambition, those peers will be more prone to be involved in drugs, theft, vandalism and other crimes. The child who's surrounded by these peers will feel pressure to do the same, even if they come from a good, loving home.
How Can We Prevent Child Crime?
As parents and as a community, there are many things we can do to help reduce the incidence of child crime. Parents and caregivers play the most influential role in a child's life, so by ensuring the child lives in a healthy, loving home and engages with a good group of friends, that parent can increase the child's chances of seeing a bright future. Of course, this is much easier said than done, particularly for single parents who must work long hours. But this is where the community as a whole can play a role.
There are many resources and programs available to children who are at higher risk of going down the wrong path, including intervention/mediation programs, boys and girls clubs, after-school programs and “big brother/big sister” mentoring programs. Members of the community can help by supporting these programs, which provide structure and guidance, while offering summer jobs and after-school jobs to teens, particularly those who are at the highest risk of running into trouble.