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Chapter 3:
The Developmental Dynamics of Youth Violence

Early- and Late-Onset Trajectories

Onset and Prevalence of Serious Violence

Cumulative Prevalence

Rates of Offending and Violent Careers

Developmental Pathway to Violence

Chronic Violent Offenders

Superpredators?

Co-Occurring Problem Behaviors

Offending and Victimization

Transition to Adulthood

Conclusions

References

Chapter 3


TRANSITION TO ADULTHOOD

The transition from adolescence to adulthood features a fairly abrupt discontinuation of serious violence, at least according to the NYS. Rates of onset and age-specific prevalence show dramatic declines, and the cumulative prevalence levels off, as discussed above. Only about 20 percent of serious violent offenders continue their violent careers into their twenties (Elliott, 1994).

While there are no differences by sex in the apparent termination of violent offending, there are significant differences by race. Twice as many African American as white youths continue their violent behavior into the adult years (Elliott, 1994). Preliminary analyses suggest that cessation of offending is related to having a stable job and a stable intimate relationship.

By 1992, the most recent year for which data are available, many people monitored by the NYS had reached their late twenties and early thirties. There is virtually no published information about what patterns of violence may have continued into their adult years. The more recent city surveys have published age-specific and cumulative prevalence findings only up to age 19, but these studies are still being conducted. Some evidence from these surveys (Figure 3-2) suggests that violent careers are lasting longer, but additional waves of data are needed to verify this trend.

Understanding the demographics and dynamics of how patterns of serious violence change with the transition into adulthood is critical to designing programs that enhance the termination of violence.

CONCLUSIONS

The prevalence of serious violence by age 17 is startling. About 30 to 40 percent of male and 15 to 30 percent of female youths report having committed a serious violent offense at some point in their lives. This cumulative prevalence is similar among African American and white males, in contrast to other measures of violence, which show racial disparities (see Chapter 2).

Two general onset trajectories emerge from longitudinal studies of youth violence—an early-onset trajectory that begins before puberty and a late-onset one that begins in adolescence. Youths in the early-onset trajectory generally commit more crimes, and more serious crimes, for a longer time. These young people exhibit a pattern of escalating violence through childhood and adolescence, and frequently into adulthood.

Most youths who become violent, however, begin in adolescence. Their late-onset offending is usually limited to a short period, peaking at about age 16 and dropping off dramatically by age 20. They typically show few signs in childhood that they will become violent later on, laying to rest the myth that all violent adolescents can be identified in childhood.

The rate of individual offending appears to have remained virtually unchanged, both during and since the years of the violence epidemic, which began in 1983 and peaked in 1993. This finding, together with evidence that the epidemic was specific to gun-related violence, challenges the myth that the early 1990s produced a generation of superpredators who were more vicious and who committed dramatically more crimes than earlier generations of young people. At the same time, the finding of a stable individual offending rate indicates that the violence epidemic has not altogether subsided.

Serious violence is frequently part of a lifestyle that includes drugs, guns, precocious sex, and other risky behaviors. Youths involved in serious violence typically commit many other types of crimes and exhibit other problem behaviors, presenting a serious challenge to intervention efforts. Successful interventions must confront not only the violent behavior of these young people, but also their lifestyles, which are teeming with risk.

Prevention and intervention programs must also take into account the different patterns of violence typical of the early- and late-onset trajectories, as well as the relatively constant rates of individual offending. Early childhood programs that target at-risk children and families are critical for preventing the onset of a chronic violent career, but programs must also be developed to combat late-onset violence. The importance of late-onset violence prevention is neither widely recognized nor well understood. Substantial numbers of serious violent offenders emerge seemingly without warning. A comprehensive community prevention strategy must address both onset patterns and ferret out their respective causes and risk factors.

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