Statistics tell us that crime is at an all-time low in the United States, with murder rates and other capital offenses dropping over the past 20 years in most major American cities.
However, a recent spate of high-profile violent crimes and homicides across the country involving adolescent male suspects raises several questions of what it is about modern society and culture that enable a high school-aged person to kill someone with little regard for life.
On Aug. 30, a Georgia jury convicted 18-year-old De’Marquise Elkins of murder for shooting a 13-month-old baby boy in his stroller on March 21. Elkins is looking at a possible life sentence in prison while a 15-year-old male co-defendant, also charged with murder, is set to be tried later this year.
In late August, police arrested two 16-year-old-boys accused of beating to death Delbert Belton, an 88-year-old World War II veteran, in Spokane, Wash. Police said the teens beat Belton — who was wounded in the Battle of Okinawa — in his vehicle while he waited for a friend outside a local Eagles Lodge.
Another murder case involving teenage boys that has attracted widespread media coverage was the Aug. 16 homicide of Chris Lane, an Australian college student, in Duncan, Okla. Police arrested two suspects — a 15-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy — on first-degree murder charges while a third suspect — a 17-year-old — was charged with being an accessory to first-degree murder. All three will be tried in adult court. Local authorities said the teens shot and killed Lane, 22, for the “fun of it.”
So-called “thrill killings” and other heinous crimes involving young people are not unusual, and in many cases today they receive greater attention because of the national mainstream media, said David Lukenbill, the founder of the Lampstand Foundation, a lay apostolate that provides written materials and resources to agencies involved in prisoner re-entry programs.
Lukenbill, 70, a resident of Sacramento, Calif., who as a young man served time in state prison for robbery and theft, told Our Sunday Visitor that mainstream entertainment has glamorized criminal culture in movies and television shows.
“It used to be in movies, the bad guys never won,” Lukenbill said. “Now, the bad guys win all the time.”
For example, published reports indicate that an 8-year-old boy in Louisiana shot and killed his 87-year-old grandmother on Aug. 23 after he played “Grand Theft Auto IV,” a violent video game. The boy will not face criminal charges in Louisiana because he is younger than 10.
“The media definitely sensationalizes criminal activity,” said Leonard Rubio, an ex-convict who served 23 years in San Quentin State Prison in California for shooting his girlfriend to death in 1986 when he was 18.
Rubio, who was released from prison in 2010 and now works to promote restorative justice, told OSV that he read several books while he was awaiting trial to understand what brought him to the point that he could kill someone.
“I wanted to make sure that I never caused that kind of pain to anyone else again,” said Rubio, who attended various self-help classes in prison.
“Taking these classes woke me up to the various behaviors I had been taught both within my family and society,” he said. “The program discusses how violence is a learned behavior and through this re-education program we can gain tools so that we can choose to not be violent toward others or ourselves.”
Unfortunately, young men often resort to violence because that is what they have seen, been taught, and had inflicted upon them in society, Rubio said.
“There are also many other factors that come into play,” he added. “The environment in which they are living. Who they are hanging around with? Their extra-curricular activities. Their home life. Their faith and spirituality. Their economic situation.”
Street gang culture
Another factor is the reality that street gang culture have crossed into the mainstream.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to grow up in high-crime areas and avoid being pulled into the gangs,” Lukenbill said. “There are so many gangs now, and their recruitment is much more aggressive. Whereas, back in the day, gangs didn’t recruit at all. But now the gangs go to the kids.”
Eighteen mayors from across the country met with President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for an Aug. 27 forum on youth violence at the White House. Obama framed the issue in terms of gun control, vowing that he would “continue doing everything in his power to combat gun violence through executive action and to press Congress to pass common-sense reforms like expanding the background check system and cracking down on gun trafficking.”
However, youth violence, Lukenbill said, runs deeper than passing gun control laws.
“I never bought a gun legally when I was in ‘the life,’ and I always had a gun,” Lukenbill said. “The criminal world is awash with guns and drugs. Guns are a necessary tool of the criminal world. If you want a gun, you don’t go to a gun store. You go to the street, and it will always be that way.”
A Catholic perspective
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in its 2000 statement on crime — “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, And Restoration: A Catholic Perspective On Crime And Criminal Justice” — that the nation’s willingness to sentence children to adult prisons contributes to recidivism. The bishops added that they could not support policies that treat young offenders as though they are adults.
“The actions of the most violent youth leave us shocked and frightened and therefore they should be removed from society until they are no longer dangerous,” the bishops said.
“But society must never respond to children who have committed crimes as though they are somehow equal to adults — fully formed in conscience and fully aware of their actions. Placing children in adult jails is a sign of failure, not a solution. In many instances, such terrible behavior points to our own negligence in raising children with a respect for life, providing a nurturing and loving environment, or addressing serious mental or emotional illnesses.”
The power of listening
Rubio, now 45 and married, said the best way to engage troubled youths is to listen.
“How many youth feel like outcasts? How many youth don’t feel like anyone listens?” he said. “People get so caught up in telling our youth what they should do and how they should do it. But few people take the time to listen to how the youth feel about those things.”
Rubio, a Knight of Columbus, added that he participates in a detention ministry for a juvenile hall, and said he shares his experiences with the youths and the opportunities that opened up to him after he become more aware of his life circumstances.
“I truly do believe that a major overhaul of the criminal justice system is needed in regards to common practices, self-help programs, education and training programs, and especially sentencing,” Rubio said.
Lukenbill added: “You don’t want kids to get into prisons and institutions where they become harder.”
“I think that it has to go back to the way it was when I was growing up in giving kids as many breaks as you can,” Lukenbill said. “The punishment has to be balanced toward mercy and love and helping the family. I think this is where the Church can be of more help than anybody.”
“In my mind, the only narrative that trumps the criminal world narrative,” Lukenbill added, “is the story of the Church.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.