Juveniles in Florida and around the nation are committing more violent acts. They have easy access to guns. They regularly see violence acted out on television and on the movie screen.
Despite this bleak picture of escalating juvenile violence, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Rosemary Barkett and a national researcher offered some perspective and even a sense of hope Wednesday at the start of a conference on juvenile crime in Tampa.
Barkett described a boy named Robert who was abused regularly by his alcoholic father. The abuse culminated with the father shooting his son, causing permanent damage to the boy's arm. Barkett wondered why anyone would be surprised to hear that Robert would resort to violence himself.
"Violence is all they know, and it is inevitable that they turn to what they know," Barkett said.
"This is not a random, uncontrollable . . . event," said Judith Becker, a researcher and expert on violent crime from the University of Arizona. "Many factors (that lead to violence) are within our ability to change."
The message from Becker and Barkett was that as scary and overwhelming as juvenile violence is, it is often quite predictable _ given the violence that children witness at home, at school and in the media.
Becker and Barkett spoke to the approximately 450 conference participants during the opening of the three-day conference, sponsored by the Florida Mental Health Institute, the University of South Florida and the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
Barkett and Becker both described juvenile violence as a phenomenon on the rise. For example:
A juvenile is arrested for murder in Florida an average of every other day.
The 95,000 juvenile arrests reported in Florida in 1990 were up 7 percent from the previous year.
From 1982 to 1990, murders involving juvenile suspects reported to HRS rose 151 percent. During that same period, rape referrals increased 72 percent, and robbery referrals increased 144 percent.
Barkett said, in reaction to the escalating violence, Florida and the nation must make tough choices beyond the emphasis on detention and the trend toward trying juveniles in adult court.
"As long as we keep relegating our nation's societal problems to a lower strata of concern, we will not diminish violence in our society, we will increase it," she said.
"We're being too shortsighted if we continue to believe that issues of racial inequity, issues of taking care of our children . . . are parochial and less important than the environment or building roads. Success in (those other) areas is meaningless if our children won't be around to enjoy (it)."
Becker gave conference participants a glimpse of a National Commission on Violence and Youth report scheduled for release in August. The report is the product of 18 months of research.
Becker systematically described the factors the research indicates contributes to violence, such as breakdown in the family, harsh and continued discipline by parents, biological factors and inappropriate school environment.
"Too often the public has associated violence with race or ethnicity rather than the social and economic conditions that create the difficult life circumstances in which violence thrives," Becker said.
Becker said the report would recommend that Congress and state legislatures support violence prevention curriculum in schools, and help identify and replicate successful programs. She also recommended that the Federal Communications Commission review television programing with an eye for violence and the the motion picture industry's film ratings system be revised.
After her speech, Barkett was asked what Florida should do to address juvenile violence. She said people must stop looking to the Legislature or the judiciary for solutions.
She challenged the conference participants _ educators, counselors, police, government officials _ to try to find solutions every day. She urged them to view the problem as a challenge.
"Some people want to climb mountains. We want to reform HRS."