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Crimes committed by kids on the rise as expert warns harsher consequences needed: 'The penalties aren't scary'

Experts weigh in on violent crimes committed by youthful offenders, what might be driving them to commit the acts and possible solutions for addressing the problem.

As crime continues to plague Americans in cities large and small, violent crimes involving juveniles continue to grab headlines and frustrate local leaders and law enforcement as one expert says teens simply are not deterred from crime because of the light consequences that have become the new norm in many areas.

In response to teen violence, some have blamed police staffing shortages that critics say were made worse by the Defund the Police movement, progressive bail and criminal justice reforms, as well as teens scoffing at authorities for young people's brazen acts of violence, often in broad daylight.

"Unfortunately, the penalties aren't scary for these kids," Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor and the former commanding officer of the NYPD’s Bronx Cold Case Squad, told Fox News Digital.

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He added that a lack of discipline in schools and possible familial dynamics could also be contributors.

"The parents aren't taking care of things," he said. "The schools aren't taking care of things, and then the police have to deal with them … and meanwhile they had no [child] rearing at home, no discipline at home and at school, and they want to know why kids are acting out."

Experts told Fox News Digital that in Philadelphia one constant for juvenile offenders arrested for violent crimes was that many had prior arrests for carjacking or gun crimes. Some attributed that to policies that release suspects back onto the streets after they are arrested, allowing them to re-offend with little-to-no consequences.

In Philadelphia, three teenage boys last month were part of a squad of shooters who opened fire near a high school. And in Los Angeles, a teen allegedly shot and killed a rapper with the help of his father during a robbery.

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Both crimes are just two examples that are part of an ongoing trend in which underage suspects in cities from the West Coast in California to the urban centers of the Eastern Seaboard commit brazen acts of brutality. Many of the teenage offenders' victims are juveniles as well. 

In New York City, a teenage girl was shot and killed earlier in the year when a 17-year-old gunman fired at another male across the street, police said. The bullets missed the male and three other people were struck, including the girl.

Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and herself the victim of an armed robbery in Washington, D.C., said that getting tough isn't the answer. Juvenile offenders need to be held accountable, she said, but in age-appropriate ways that address the cause of their behavior.

"Harmed people harm people. We know that," she said. "When we recognize that they're still developing, still maturing, and we intervene with approaches that will take that into account as far as where they came from, what they've endured, what circumstances might have led to their behavior and to their crimes, and we address those things, that's when we see a toughness on crime."

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In New York state, the age to prosecute a child as an adult was raised to 18 several years ago, a move that has resulted in negative impacts, one expert told Fox News Digital.

Given how little experts say is known about juvenile crime, it's difficult to discern whether there is a juvenile crime epidemic or not, says David Kennedy, a criminal justice professor at New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"You have to know what’s happening in order to be rational about this," he said. "For the most part we don’t, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe that the violence increases of the last few years are being driven by juveniles."

Kennedy told Fox News Digital that many of the crimes in cities committed by juveniles are confined to a small number of offenders and that the little bit of data available doesn't point to a national juvenile crime epidemic.

Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, said the data don't paint a picture of juvenile crime out of control, telling Fox News Digital, "Show me the data going back all the way to before the ‘90s, preferably to the ’80s, and then we can talk about how terrible it is."

Crime on a whole spiked during the pandemic, and reports of kids involved in some of the most violent of offenses has been a cause of concern among local law enforcement agencies. Some of the violence was exacerbated amid financial hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic when many schools were closed for in-person learning, coupled with months of social unrest and the shifting of attitudes toward law enforcement, experts have said.

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In August, the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which is designed to prevent and respond to youth delinquency, said arrests of juveniles for violent crime declined in 2020, the most recent year for which data are available, and were down 78% from their peak in 1994.

Law enforcement agencies in 2020 made 424,300 child arrests, of which 8% were for violent crime offenses. However, 1,780 minors were murder victims in the same year, a 30% increase from 2019.

In the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, youth arrests declined and the percentage of violent crime arrests involving underage offenders declined by 56%, compared to 6% for adults, the OJJDP said.

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Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon and his office are handling the case of a 17-year-old charged in connection with the death of PnB Rock, a Philadelphia-based rapper who was shot and killed while eating lunch with his girlfriend. Gascon has been characterized as being soft on crime and accused of coddling juvenile suspects no matter how serious the offense.

Amid the uproar over his policies, he has walked back some directives regarding how youthful offenders are prosecuted and is now open to charging children involved in "severe violence" as adults. A blanket ban on sending kids to adult court initially drew intense criticism and helped fuel two unsuccessful recall efforts.

The issue of crime, including among youth, has generated attention from lawmakers at all levels of government, some of whom have called for get-tough-on-crime policies and the end of social justice programs.

Amid the violence committed by youth, data show young offenders engaging in one particular crime more than others. In several cities, carjackings committed by juveniles have increased amid the crime wave.

Addressing the Senate Judiciary Committee, National Insurance Crime Bureau President and CEO David Glawe said most carjacking offenses in Washington, D.C., are committed by juveniles.

"Of the 149 individuals arrested in 2021 for carjackings, 100 were juveniles," Glawe said.

In California, more than 19,300 juveniles were arrested for crimes in 2021, and those from 15 to 17 years of age were arrested for felonies more so than misdemeanors. In total, 9,132 underage offenders were arrested for felonies.

The 17-year-old year suspect accused of killing PnB Rock, whose real name was Rakim Allen, was charged with murder, conspiracy to commit robbery and two counts of second-degree robbery, along with his 40-year-old father. The teen allegedly shot the rapper in the back and chest several times during the deadly Sept. 13 confrontation.

In Chicago, law enforcement officials boasted in mid-September about a "significant" decrease in juvenile shooting victims from 293 in 2021 to 253 in the same time frame this year.

"Juveniles are either victims and are offenders of gun violence, and we take it very seriously. And we are continuing to make progress in this area," Chicago police Superintendent David O. Brown said at the time.

The last time New York City faced a crime wave of this magnitude was in the '90s. Louis Anemone, former chief of department to the NYPD, said kids from different schools would fight and that subway passengers were concerned about rowdy students acting up on the trains after school. To combat the trend, the NYPD dispatched officers near certain schools and subway stations.

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The difference between then and now, Anemone said, is the use of the internet as offenders violently retaliate against one another for perceived slights online.

"There's a large proportion of the violence in the city right now that's perpetrated by youth and the victims are other youth," Anemone said. "That wasn't the case back then. We didn't have the internet. You had to actually schedule a fight if you were going to do something."

"Whose in charge of correcting that?" he added, referring to the family dynamics of the youthful offenders.

A bigger police presence would curb some of the juvenile violence, he said, a difficult task given police staffing shortages coupled with recruiting and retention problems, Anemone noted.

Last year, 656 underage offenders were arrested in connection with murder and non-negligent manslaughter, according to the FBI. That is down slightly from 683 arrested the year prior. The true figures are most likely higher because not every law enforcement agency submitted figures to the agency for 2021, including the New York and Los Angeles police departments, the two largest in the country.

Overall violent crime decreased in 2021 by 1%, according to the FBI's Crime in the Nation Report released in early October. The report is designed to give a snapshot of the overall crime picture in the United States, but if participation among the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies is low, the figures draw on fewer data points.

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