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Youth Violence Epidemic Not Over, but Effective Prevention Programs Exist, Surgeon General's Report Finds

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 17, 2001
Contact: Damon Thompson
(301) 443-4000

The epidemic of youth violence in the United States is not over, even though arrest rates for violent crimes by youths have dropped substantially in recent years, according to a report released today by Surgeon General David Satcher. At the same time, the report found a number of programs exist that are highly effective in preventing serious violent behavior and eliminating major risk factors for violence.

Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General examines the factors that lead young people to gravitate toward violence, reviews the factors that protect youth from perpetrating violence and identifies effective research-based preventive strategies.

"This is no time to let down our guard on youth violence," Satcher said.  "Even so, our success in developing knowledge and tools to prevent serious violence gives us reason for optimism. 

"This report confirms that, as a nation, we possess knowledge and have translated that knowledge into programs that are effective in preventing youth violence,” Satcher said.  "Therefore, we cannot afford to waste resources on ineffective or harmful interventions and strategies-or to further jeopardize the well-being of youth who may be assigned to ineffective programs."

Youth homicide, robbery and arrest rates in 1999 were actually lower than they were in 1983. This drop was largely due to a decrease in the use of firearms by youths since the peak years of mid-1990s.  At the same time, however, arrest rates for aggravated results remain nearly 70 percent higher than 1983, and self-report studies indicate that the proportion of youth involved in violent behavior and the rates of violent offending have not declined since the mid-1990s.

Serious violence is part of a lifestyle that includes drugs, guns, gangs, precocious sex, and other risky behaviors. Risk and protective factors related to youth violence exist in every area of life - individual, family, school, peer group and community - and vary in importance as children move from infancy to early adulthood. For example, substance abuse is an even more powerful risk factor at age 10 than it is at age 18.

The report found strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase children's "aggressive behavior" in the short term and concluded: "Research to date justifies sustained efforts to curb the adverse effects of media violence on youths." However, it found that it was extremely difficult to distinguish between the relatively small long-term effects of exposure to media violence and those of other influences. 

Successful youth violence prevention programs target specific populations of young people as defined by risk and life experience, build individual skills and competencies, include parent effectiveness training and encourage changes in type and level of involvement in peer groups.

In addition to identifying 27 specific intervention programs that have met rigorous scientific standards, the report also challenges false notions and misinterpretations about youth violence and debunks myths about violence and violent youth, including: 

  • Myth: Most future offenders can be identified in early childhood. (Fact: Exhibiting uncontrolled behavior or being diagnosed with a conduct disorder as a young child does not predetermine violence in adolescence);
  • Myth: African American and Hispanic youths are more likely to become involved in violence than other racial or ethnic groups (Fact: While there are racial and ethnic differences in homicide arrest rates, data from self-reports indicate that race and ethnicity have little bearing on the overall proportion of nonfatal violent behavior);
  • Myth: A new, violent breed of young "super-predators" threatens the United States (Fact: There is no evidence that young people involved in violence during the peak years of the early 1990s were more frequent or more vicious offenders than youths in earlier years.);
  • Myth: Getting tough with juvenile offenders by trying them in adult criminal courts reduces the likelihood that they will commit more crimes (Fact: Juveniles transferred to adult criminal court have significantly higher rates of re-offending and a greater likelihood of committing subsequent felonies than youths who remain in the juvenile justice system.); and 
  • Myth: Most violent youths will end up being arrested for a violent crime. (Fact: Most youths involved in violent behavior will never be arrested for a violent crime.).

The report suggests that unsupported assumptions or failure to recognize the true nature of a problem can obscure the need for informed policy or for interventions.

"The most urgent need now is a national resolve to confront the problem of youth violence systematically using research-based approaches and to correct damaging myths and stereotypes that interfere with the task at hand," Satcher said.

He noted that the public health approach to solving problems holds that health care is best learned, performed and maintained when it is ingrained in individuals' and communities' daily routines and perceptions of what constitutes good health practices. That principle is consistent with action steps listed in the report that the nation can take to prevent youth violence:

  • Continued science-based research;
  • Facilitating the entry of youths into effective intervention programs rather than incarcerating them;
  • Disseminating model programs with incentives that will ensure fidelity to the original program design when taken to scale;
  • Providing training and certification programs for intervention personnel;
  • Improving public awareness of effective interventions;
  • Improving federal, state and local strategies for crime information reporting; and
  • Convening a periodic youth violence summit involving diverse disciplines, federal, state and local government agencies and private organizations.

A full copy of Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General is available on the Surgeon General's Web site at http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/

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