A flurry of violence in Anchorage in 2003 involving juveniles with guns has led to a study of youth violence by the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The study, now in its final stages, can help with placing and seeing the 2003 incidents—and those which have happened since—in the broader perspective presented by available data on youth violence in Anchorage, Alaska, and the nation as a whole.
The shootings at the end of 2003 followed one another fairly rapidly within a few weeks. Some of the incidents involved homicide, and some incidents were characterized by an unwillingness of victims or witnesses to share information with the police. This cluster of events created apprehension among some Anchorage residents that youth violence was increasing, was out of control and needed to be dealt with immediately.
In response to this concern, Mayor Mark Begich asked the Anchorage Public Safety Advisory Commission (PSAC) to explore the issue of youth violence in greater depth. PSAC responded by holding a variety of community meetings with public officials, agency representatives, concerned parents, and youths on December 4, 2003 and March 10, 2004. The purpose of these meetings was to assess community concerns about youth violence. More specifically, meeting participants attempted to specify the problem, identify its causes, and develop recommendations. In the absence of hard data or facts on youth violence, however, recommendations were difficult to develop. Although there was substantial anecdotal evidence on youth violence, the lack of hard data made it impossible to develop sensible recommendations.
As a result, the PSAC recommended that the UAA Justice Center study the issue. The PSAC identified four key questions for the Center:
(1) What are the statistics of youth violence in Anchorage?
(2) Where is youth violence concentrated?
(3) How does youth violence in Anchorage compare to that in other cities of the same size?
(4) How does youth violence in Anchorage today compare with youth violence 10 years ago? 5 years ago?
The Center agreed to undertake the study as part of its research mission within the Alaska community. It established a partnership with the Anchorage Police Department (APD) to conduct the study.
In summer 2004, a team of researchers collected information about youth incidents of homicide, nonnegligent manslaughter, assault, rape, robbery, burglary, motor vehicle theft, arson, and vandalism reported to the Anchorage Police Department in 2002 and 2003. Although information from the whole study is not yet available for dissemination, in this article we can answer several of the PSAC questions. First, we examine statistics of youth violence to show how Anchorage compares to other cities and to show how Alaska today compares to 5 and 10 years ago. We also examine community residents’ perceptions of youth violence. After presenting these data, we discuss the importance of data in the formulation of public policy.
How does Anchorage Compare to the Country as a Whole?
To answer this question, we rely on data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. From these data, we can obtain the arrest rates of persons under age 18 (per 100,000 juveniles age 10 to 17) from 1994 to 2002 for four violent crimes—murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, robbery, forcible rape, and aggravated assault (Table 1 and Figure 1). More specifically, Figure 1 depicts the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes in Anchorage and the U.S. from 1994 to 2002. In this figure, we can see that the Anchorage juvenile arrest rate for violent crime—albeit more volatile—was similar to the U.S. rate: both rates have been declining and the average rates from 1994 to 2002 were very similar. The average Anchorage juvenile arrest rate for violent crime per 100,000 juveniles (age 10 to 17) was below the U.S. rate (i.e., 379 in the U.S. versus 344 in Anchorage). From 1994 to 2002, the U.S. rate declined significantly more precipitously than the Anchorage rate (84% versus 11%), but this difference is attributable to the inherent volatility of the Anchorage rate compared to the inherent stability of the U.S. rate. Overall, these data do not indicate that there is a serious problem with youth violence in Anchorage; rather, the level of youth violence in Anchorage is comparable to the national average.
Do these comparisons mask any important differences in the composition of violent crime? In Table 2, we compare the composition of violent crime in Anchorage to that in the U.S. in 2002. Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter represented 1.5 percent of the juvenile violent crime in the U.S. and 1.7 percent of the juvenile violent crime in Anchorage. Forcible rape represents 5 percent of the juvenile violent crime in the U.S. and 4 percent of it in Anchorage. Robbery represented 27 percent and 29 percent of the juvenile violent crime in the U.S. and Anchorage, respectively. Finally, 67 percent of the juvenile violent crime in the U.S. was attributable to aggravated assault whereas 65 percent of it in Anchorage was attributable to aggravated assault. Although small differences did exist, the compositions of violent crime in Anchorage and the U.S. was essentially identical.
To further investigate how Anchorage compares to the U.S., we disaggregated the 1994 to 2002 trend shown in Figure 1 by offense type in Figures 2 through 5. Respectively, Figures 2, 3, 4, and 5 show the Anchorage and U.S. juvenile arrest rates for murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, robbery, forcible rape, and aggravated assault per 100,000 juveniles (age 10 to 17) from 1994 to 2002. In no graph is there a substantial difference between the Anchorage rates and the U.S. rates. The juvenile murder rate has been low in both Anchorage and the U.S., averaging 9 per 100,000 in Anchorage and 7 per 100,000 in the U.S. Although the Anchorage rate of forcible rape was higher, peaking in 1997, it has since declined to levels below the U.S. rate. Both the robbery rate and the aggravated assault rate have slowly declined in both Anchorage and the U.S. The average robbery rates were 121 per 100,000 in the U.S. and 103 in Anchorage, while the average aggravated assault rates were 234 per 100,000 in the U.S. and 212 in Anchorage.
Overall, the data suggest that juvenile violent crime in Anchorage is identical to juvenile violent crime elsewhere. Few significant or substantively important differences were found in the level, trend, or nature of juvenile violent crime. When differences exist, they are solely attributable to the volatility or instability of rates in smaller locales (e.g., Anchorage) relative to larger ones (e.g., U.S.). In general, the trends in Anchorage are similar to the trends in the U.S.
How does Alaska Compare to 5 and 10 Years Ago?
Anchorage data on youth violence from 5 and 10 years ago are not easily available, so it was not possible to compare the recent situation with earlier periods. Instead, in this section, we compare the current levels of youth violence in the entire state to those of 5 and 10 years ago. Table 3 shows the number of juveniles arrested in Alaska for murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault in 1993, 1998, and 2003. Overall, the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes in Alaska has declined by 22 percent over the last five years and 14 percent over the last 10 years.
Changes over the past 5 and 10 years do vary by offense type. While the number of juveniles arrested for murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, robbery, and aggravated assault has declined over the past five and 10 years, the number of juveniles arrested for forcible rape has increased. More specifically, the number of juveniles arrested for forcible rape in Alaska has increased by 56 percent over the last five years and by 40 percent over the last 10. Although these are large percentage increases, the number of arrests for forcible rape in Alaska has only increased by 10 arrests over the last 5 years and by 8 arrests over the last 10 years. Furthermore, this increase may reflect an increase in public and official awareness of forcible rape as a punishable offense rather than a true increase in offending. Unfortunately, the true number of forcible rapes is unknown, as forcible rape is one of the least likely offenses to be reported to police.
With the exception of forcible rape, for which a small increase in the number of arrests has been noted, youth violence is declining in Alaska, as it is elsewhere. Again, these data suggest that youth violence is a less serious problem than it was 5 or 10 years ago.
Public Perceptions of Youth Violence
Data on public perceptions of youth violence are available from the 2005 Anchorage Community Survey. The Anchorage Community Survey is a telephone survey of randomly-selected adult residents in the Municipality of Anchorage conducted every two years by the Justice Center. There were 2,485 participants in the most recent survey conducted from October 2004 to February 2005. About one-quarter (n=596) of the respondents in this survey were asked a series of eight questions measuring their perceptions of youth violence in Anchorage. Here we examine the results from the three questions concerning how much of a problem youth violence is perceived to be, fear of victimization by youth, and perceptions of change in levels of youth violence. Data from the first question—“How much of a problem would you say youth violence is in your neighborhood?”—are shown in Table 4. This table indicates that only a very small portion of respondents, fewer than 3 percent, considered youth violence in their neighborhoods to be either a very big or a big problem. Close to 70 percent replied that youth violence in their neighborhood was not a problem at all, while 28 percent answered that it is somewhat of a problem.
The second question (Table 5) was “Please tell me how much concern you, yourself, have of being victimized by someone under the age of 18.” A large majority of respondents had no concern or very little concern (28% and 49% respectively). Only 3 percent reported a great deal of concern, and 2 percent said they had quite a lot of concern. Fewer than one in five (18%) claimed to have some concern of being victimized by someone under the age of 18.
Table 6 shows the data from the final question, “In general, would you say there is more or less youth violence in your neighborhood than there was at this time one year ago?” A small percentage of respondents, 8 percent, thought there was more youth violence in their neighborhoods, while 29 percent thought there was less. Close to two-thirds, or 63 percent, said there was the same amount of youth violence in their neighborhood in comparison to a year ago.
Overall, the Anchorage community does not perceive youth violence to be a serious problem, and most residents did not believe that youth violence was a serious problem in their particular neighborhoods. Most Anchorage residents were not concerned about being victimized by someone under the age of 18, and most residents believed that youth violence in their neighborhood had declined over the past year. The official statistics presented earlier corroborate these perceptions.
Serious crime is a relatively rare event, and violent crime involving youth is far rarer still, yet when a number of these highly unusual incidents occur very close together in time, as happened in late 2003, it is not surprising that some residents become concerned that an epidemic of youth violence has been unleashed. However, as the data from the Anchorage Community Survey very clearly show, this concern is not shared by the general population.
Furthermore, if we look beyond people’s perceptions and examine official data, there is no evidence of a surge of youth violence in Anchorage. As we have shown, youth arrest rates in Anchorage are comparable to those of the country as a whole. There is also little indication that Anchorage youth commit significantly different types of violent crimes in comparison to American youth. Not only is the nature of youth violence essentially the same in Anchorage as it is in the rest of the United States, the actual rates of reported youth violence (with the exception of forcible rape) are declining nationally and in the city as well. In comparison with 5 and 10 years ago, fewer youth crimes have been reported in Alaska.
We must be careful not to react hastily in times of apparent crisis, even if it means ignoring cries for immediate action. Good programs and policies develop not out of fear and demands for quick solutions to complex problems, but out of careful examination of the evidence and consideration of what has been effectively done elsewhere. We should use the concerns of well-intentioned residents to energize the community to support the good programs that are already in place in Anchorage and proven to reduce youth violence. If additional programs must be developed, we need not reinvent the wheel: there are already many kinds of youth violence prevention initiatives whose effectiveness has been empirically demonstrated. Any new efforts should not result from episodic clamors in response to rare incidents. Instead, they must be based on careful analyses of the facts.
This conclusion does not imply that youth violence is not a problem. Clearly, youth violence does occur in Anchorage, often with devastating consequences. Youth violence, however, is not a serious problem. Consequently, there is no urgent need to react. For now, we should continue efforts to curtail the levels of youth violence, and new initiatives can be both data driven and empirically supported.
In order to provide a more detailed empirical description of youth violence in Anchorage, the Justice Center is continuing its analyses of the data collected from the case files of the Anchorage Police Department. This empirical description will serve as a solid foundation from which to build new initiatives. The initial goal is to prepare a descriptive report providing in-depth information on suspects, victims, and incident characteristics. Incident characteristics will include information on time, place, the use of weapons, and the extent of co-offending or offending in groups. Other more detailed analyses will examine the spatial patterning of youth violence and the social networks that may exist among young offenders and their victims. This descriptive report will be released in late 2005.
André Rosay and Sharon Chamard are assistant professors with the Justice Center.