This essay discusses the various causes of juveniles committing murder and looks at the possibility that some children are born with a predisposition towards violence and murder. Research has thrown up that there is a wide range of possible causes, some of which can – alone or in combination – trigger the ensuing violence. Causes that occur frequently and that therefore figure prominently in the results of studies are poor academic performance and school truancy, leading to the individuals concerned mixing with the wrong crowd and perhaps getting into trouble as a result, at the same time missing out on the school environment and discipline, that would otherwise help improve social skills and interpersonal relationship development. Other causes include dysfunctional family backgrounds and possible abuse (physical and/or sexual in nature). There is also a considerable body of opinion that certain people (including psychopaths) have brain abnormalities that cause them to lack normal emotions, resulting in a cold-hearted person who lacks feelings of compassion or guilt. Such people appear to be more likely to resort to violent behavior from a young age, attracting the label “born to kill” that could well be valid, if the scientists and psychologists are correct in their interpretation of brain scans performed on them. Whilst there is no clear evidence that remedial treatment would be effective for those individuals, early intervention for youngsters showing aggressive tendencies originating from other causes could be most effective in reversing those tendencies, and reducing future crime as a consequence.
This paper examines and discusses the various factors that might be the causes of juvenile murder, and what turns children and teenagers into murderers. It also considers the possibility that some children are born to kill, in other words whether there is something in their genes or in their psychological make-up that makes them more likely to commit crimes of violence than other children.
Causal Factors Leading to Juvenile Murders
“Preventing involvement in crime” (n.d.) published by the Northern Ireland government services lists a number of reasons why youngsters commit crimes. The theme of the article is that there is no single cause, but that several factors can combine to make a criminal act more likely. Those include:
- Poor school performance and absenteeism (truancy);
- Family relationship problems;
- Inadequate / erratic parental control;
- Circle of friends with criminal tendencies;
- Substance abuse;
- Mental health disorders like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
The same article stresses that because parents are so important in the lives of their children, their own attitudes, lifestyle and behavior can influence and affect their children – both in positive and negative ways – and can affect their probability of committing offences. The article suggested that children are likely to stay clear of trouble if the mother and father can talk freely with them and maintain a good, close relationship based on a set of rules agreed with their children. Also, that they should always know where the children are and what they are doing. That parental role should extend to taking an active interest in the children’s school, visiting the school when they can and enjoy good relationships with the teaching staff. They should encourage the children to join sports, youth or church clubs to be active in a positive way within the local community. The article concluded by reminding parents that parental support is the most important factor in keeping children away from crime or in helping them if they do get involved.
Another article entitled “What Risk Factors Are Identified With Juvenile Crime?” (May 1995) echoed some of the causal factors described in the Northern Ireland referenced above, but in a little more detail. The article first noted that whilst there are typically only a small number of juveniles who resort to crime, and that in most cases the experience of being processed through the criminal justice system is enough to keep them away from further crime, there are others who are “chronic recidivists.” Such children in many cases committed their first offense when as young as 11 and even then showed characteristics and attributes that placed them firmly in the “at risk” category. Covering some of the same ground as the Northern Ireland article, those heightened risk factors included:
- Problems Within the Family: These could include a background of criminal behavior and/or being subjected to either physical or sexual abuse, along with a lack of parental control compounded by neglect or being abandoned;
- Substance Abuse: In this instance, the problem need not be the simple case of being arrested for that offense, but perhaps more seriously the effects the abuse could have on the subject’s behavior. Consuming alcohol or taking drugs can lower inhibitions, facilitating criminal acts. In addition, becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol can lead to crimes to fund the habit;
- Pattern Behavior and Conduct Problems: Examples of pattern behavior are a chronic disposition for theft or persistent absconding. Youngsters with what are called conduct problems are typically adolescents who have not outgrown childhood aggressive tendencies;
- Gang Membership / Possessing a Gun: The problems arising from gang membership are primarily applicable to juveniles. Even the youngest gang members are likely to be engaged in criminal activities in the future. Possession of a gun moves that juvenile crime into a higher “league” as it is more likely to be the cause of a violent death.
The article stressed that while the listed factors do not necessarily lead to a criminal career, they do make it more likely. And the more factors that apply in an individual case, the higher the probability. For that reason, policies and approaches that could be implemented at an early stage to change the course of events could be beneficial in reducing future crime.
In contrast to the foregoing articles that attribute earlier life experiences as causes of the problems, there is a considerable body of opinion that certain people are predisposed towards violent crime by having brains that are different to normal people. Waugh (May 2012) published an article in the Daily Mail based on that concept. Waugh reported that when psychopaths were subjected to brain scans, scientists found that they were deficient in grey matter in parts of the brain that control the understanding of the emotions of other people, fitting in with the typical character of a psychopath as one who lacks the ability to empathize. According to the article, damage to those parts of the brain not only results in a lack of empathy, but in “a poor response to fear and distress and a lack of self-conscious emotions such as guilt or embarrassment.” If those findings are valid, meaning that such people have a physical abnormality in their brain, then providing them with behavioral therapy may be pointless. Scientists classify psychopaths as “cold-hearted”, whereas other non-psychopathic violent criminals are called “hot-headed.” That latter group are said to have anti-social personality disorders (ASPD).
Wickliffe (2007) in a paper entitled “Why Juveniles Commit Crimes” also mentioned what he called the “biological approach”, confirming the Waugh findings that the brain scans of criminals (including some juvenile delinquents) show abnormalities compared with those of “normal” people. However, he did add a caveat that because the brains of adolescents are still growing, there is the possibility that things could improve as they mature.
An article entitled “Why do kids commit murder?” by Mattiuzzi (Nov 2006) looked at a range of causes that can lead to youngsters committing crimes of violence. The author enjoyed a career as a forensic psychologist, including time spent working for the California Youth Authority. In his opening remarks, Mattiuzzi noted that with few exceptions, adolescents are just as capable [as adults] of knowing that what they did was wrong.” The reasons he gave for various kids resorting to murder included the following:
- Because they are “chronically aggressive, cold and unfeeling”;
- Because they react to a history of “over-controlled hostility” by exploding;
- Because they can longer tolerate their life following traumatization;
- Because they are “immature and narcissistic” and obsessive. As a consequence, they feel justified in acting in a violent manner;
Mattiuzzi related that during his years as a forensic psychologist he conducted hundreds of psychological evaluations of adolescents who had either attempted homicide or had actually murdered someone. He considered that such in-depth psychological interviews were often the only occasions that the full details of the crime – told from the offender’s perspective – would be revealed, along with their innermost views, feelings, and beliefs. According to Mattiuzzi, that was the only stage of the criminal justice process where the offender would be likely to describe their thoughts and their candid view of that fateful moment when they had “pulled the trigger or struck the fatal blow.” He related that on some occasions their statements were not enough to clarify their motivation, yet on others they would give sufficient insight to determine whether in that instance the case was “an example of tragedy or an example of evil.”
Mattiuzzi noted that although these adolescent offenders and their crimes bore similarities with their adult counterparts, there were what he described as “unique features.” For example, he believed that kids may act with feelings of invincibility because they are immature, impulsive, and lacking in judgment. By being fearless and indifferent to risk, they can behave in a dangerous way, which through inexperience ignores their obligations and the possible consequences. There is also the factor that many young people feel that the solution to interpersonal conflict is to respond to provocation with physical violence, not stopping to consider that it could have a fatal result. Mattiuzi commented that he deplored the increasing use of the term “respect” in the way that it is interpreted by youngsters. As a consequence he said, teenagers kill someone as part of the process of “defending a sense of honor that they never earned or deserved.” Such behavior is also part of the group culture that features teenagers “hanging out” in groups, similar to gang behavior, even when not part of any formally-organized gang. People in such groups might behave in ways they would not do if alone; a phenomenon described as “diffusion of responsibility.” The group situation reduces individual’s inhibitions due to the likely abandonment of restraint. One classic consequence is violence resulting from the perceived need to defend the group’s honor.
With regard to such group-inspired violence, a key factor that Mattiuzi mentioned is weapons possession. He recounted that on so many occasions he had been told afterwards that the knife or firearm used was “just for protection.” Whilst that may have been the perpetrator’s view prior to the crime, there is little doubt that in the heat of the moment impulsive behavior and bad judgment take over to bring the weapon into actual use.
Narramore (2001) also discussed the causes of violent behavior by youngsters in his article “Why Teenagers Turn to Violence.” He reminded readers of the shocking newspaper headlines on the occasion of the day in Littleton, Colorado when two teenage boys murdered twelve students and a teacher, wounded another 23 people, then killed themselves. When people ask how such things can happen, and what sort of person can commit such crimes, Narramore’s response is that the causes are wide ranging, but that there are common factors.
One such type of youngster is one who Narramore described as “bitter, angry and resentful.” These are people who have for years been living in a state of rage, who dress alike but different to the norm, effectively telling others that they simply do not want to fit in with everyone else, with the establishment. Those youngsters in Colorado were in that mould. They belonged to a group calling themselves “The Trench Coat Mafia.” Followers wore a “uniform” comprising “ankle length, black trench coats, dark sunglasses, and black berets” and went around playing war games and openly boasting of the firearms they possessed.
According to Narramore, other equally angry teenagers are better at hiding their rage and appear normal to outsiders. He noted that in many cases the teenagers who felt alienated were inheriting similar feelings felt by their parents, or perhaps felt alienated by a more successful or favored sibling, for example. He also viewed those teenagers who callously murder several fellow students as more psychologically disturbed than (for example) an adult who kills while a crime is being perpetrated, or in the heat of the moment. They tend to lack normal emotions, being unable to feel or express love for others. He noted that one of the Colorado shooters had been laughing while he was shooting fellow students.
Narramore also mentioned the role played by TV violence in making violence seem almost acceptable. He quoted a statistic that “The average child sees over 10,000 murders on television before he graduates from high school.” He concluded his article by cautioning parents to be alert to signs of disturbance in their son/daughter and therefore of impending danger, including: frequently losing his/her temper; uncontrolled anger leading to fighting; making threats to others; withdrawing from close friends and family; feelings of resentment and persecution; substance use including alcohol; fascination with guns (maybe carrying one), violent magazines or videos; taking risks; a fierce aversion to authority.
The research has shown that there is a multiplicity of causes of young people resorting to violence, including the ultimate violent crime of murder. Many causes are background /environment-related, such as dysfunctional families and an inability to perform adequately in school. In many cases, early intervention can turn those difficult personalities around. If danger signs are spotted and appropriate treatment and/or therapy is provided, the violent tendencies can be reduced or eradicated before serious crimes have been perpetrated.
There is also a body of opinion that some exceptionally violent people (including adolescents) have brain abnormalities that render them incapable of having normal emotions and lacking feelings of empathy with others. In other words those individuals could – perhaps from birth – be predisposed towards violent behavior (thus “born to kill”). The effectiveness of behavioral treatment in those cases is uncertain.
Mattiuzzi, P., G. (Nov 2006). “Why do kids commit murder?” Sacramento Bee. Retrieved from http://everydaypsychology.com/2006/11/why-do-kids-commit-murder.html
Narramore, B. (2001). “Why Teenagers Turn to Violence.” Narramore Christian Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.ncfliving.org/bk_102_violence1.php
“Preventing involvement in crime.” (n.d.). NIdirect government services. Retrieved from http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/preventing-involvement-in-crime
Waugh, R. (May 2012). “Born to kill? Psychopaths have different brains to normal people - and current 'therapies' for killers may be useless.” Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2141160/Born-bad-Rapists-psychopathic-murderers-physically-different-brains-normal-people.html
“What Risk Factors Are Identified With Juvenile Crime?” (May 1995). Legislative Analyst’s Office (California). Retrieved from http://www.lao.ca.gov/1995/050195_juv_crime/kkpart3.aspx
Wickliffe, J., A. (2007). “Why Juveniles Commit Crimes.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Retrieved from http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2000/2/00.02.07.x.html