The End of Innocence... Or Perhaps the End of Adolescence - National Commission on Correctional Health Care
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Aug 25, 2022

The End of Innocence… Or Perhaps the End of Adolescence

In 1989 Don Henley released his single “The End of Innocence.” The first verse goes like this:

Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin’ by
But “happily ever after” fails
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell on small details
Since daddy had to fly

We, as a nation, and yes, even as a world, are seeing a disturbing crime trend in an increase of violent crimes, specifically murders, being conducted by juvenile offenders. In my county alone, a typical suburb community, we have seen a significant increase. In just a few months span we saw:

March 22, 2022:               Three suspects for an alleged fatal shooting of an 18-year-old, one age 15 and the other two age 16 as suspects in the shooting.

July 2, 2022:                      Two juvenile males, one age 17 and one age 15, were arrested for the alleged murder of a 15-year-old at a birthday party.

July 28, 2022:                    A 15-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly assaulting (pistol-whipping) the victim, stealing his car, and then fleeing the scene which ended in a crash that left one man dead and a woman fighting for her life.

July 29, 2022:                    A 15-year-old and a 17-year-old were arrested for allegedly killing a 20-year-old

May 24, 2022:                   Prince William County Police arrested and charged a 15-year-old and charged him with first-degree murder in the alleged deaths of two 23-year-old men.

June 3, 2022:                     Charlotte, NC Police arrested two 15-year-old suspects for an alleged murder.

In fact, it is not even specific to this country.

July 4, 2022:                      London, England: A man and two 16-year-olds were charged with the murder of a teenager who was stabbed to death in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands region of England.

Additionally, the number of teenagers convicted of murder in Britain has more than doubled in five years in England and Wales, according to according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). From 2016 to 2020, the number of teenagers convicted of murder jumped 115%.

Worldwide, in June of 2020, the World Health Organization stated “youth” violence is a global public health problem. It includes a range of acts from bullying and physical fighting to more severe sexual and physical assault to homicide.

Here in the United States, according to the FBI’s annual Crime in the United States report, compiled by using data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), we can see below the steady increase in homicides attributed to juvenile offenders.

 2014201520162017201820196-year increase
Homicides by someone under 1865366773680392082923.9%
Homicides by someone between 9-1289107816100%
Homicides by someone between 13-1632334137440549645039.3%
Homicides by someone between 17-191,2341,2631,4131,4671,4791,44116.8%

(The FBI has not posted data from the Uniform Crime Report for 2020 yet)

This is disturbing, alarming, horrifying. So why are we seeing more young offenders committing such violent acts of murder as well as other crimes? If we don’t start looking for answers or solutions now, when will we? Do we need to see even younger people start killing before we pay attention?

There are many potential reasons or causal factors for this. The World Health Organization lists several risk factors:

  • attention deficit, hyperactivity, conduct disorder, or other behavioral disorders
  • early involvement with alcohol, drugs and tobacco
  • low commitment to school and school failure
  • poor monitoring and supervision of children by parents
  • harsh, lax or inconsistent parental disciplinary practices
  • low level of attachment between parents and children
  • low parental involvement in children’s activities
  • parental substance abuse or criminality
  • parental depression

One obvious conclusion would be that we need to focus more on the family unit and have more community-based programs to teach positive parenting skills. These include school-based programs to increase social development and to help adolescents manage anger, resolve conflict, and develop the necessary social skills to solve problems and programs designed to prevent violence.

More important is the need for therapeutic intervention for youths at high risk of being involved in violence. Perhaps the most pressing fall-out of the Nation’s failure in addressing the increasing mental health needs is that of meeting them for our children. Especially in the children that are at a higher risk for being involved in violence.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recognizes the special health challenges of adolescence, which is a time of change – physical, cognitive and emotional – that is a normal part of development, with a policy statement, “Unique Needs of the Adolescent,” published in Pediatrics in December 2019. The statement emphasizes the need for preventive care and counseling for adolescents, who are more prone to engage in risky behaviors as they push toward autonomy.

“It’s really important to have ongoing conversations with young patients and become a trusted source for help, especially with health issues that might be sensitive, such as sexuality, substance use or mental health concerns,” said Elizabeth M. Alderman, MD, FSAHM, FAAP, co-author of the policy statement and chair of the AAP Committee on Adolescence.

The New York Times article May 10, 2022, “Teens in Distress Are Swamping Pediatricians,” stated over the last three decades, the major health risks facing U.S. adolescents have shifted drastically: Teen pregnancy and alcohol, cigarette and drug use have fallen while anxiety, depression, suicide, and self-harm have soared. In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report noting that “mental health disorders have surpassed physical conditions” as the most common issues causing “impairment and limitation” among adolescents.

In its 2021 advisory report “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy stated “Recent national surveys of young people have shown alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health challenges—in 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009. “ He further stated, “It would be a tragedy if we did not address this public health crisis.”

The time to make mental health a priority in this country, and this commonwealth, is way past due. We must address it head-on and with the resources…and revenue…to make a positive impact.

The suspects in the Buffalo and Uvalde mass killings, both of whom were 18 years old, appear to have had mental health issues that were not addressed, prompting Texas Governor Greg Abbott to state the Uvalde school shooter had a “mental health challenge” and the state needed to “do a better job with mental health.”

We need to make this a priority. We need a more complete and accessible mental health system. The alarm has sounded and continues to sound. Now, it’s time for all of us, collectively, to answer that alarm. If not, Don Henley’s final verse in his single “The End of Innocence” will have been a premonition.

Just lay your head back on the ground
And let your hair fall all around me
Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence

By Sheriff Karl Leonard, Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office

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