Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, gun violence has spiked significantly and cities across the nation are facing a perfect storm of challenges that are contributing to the crisis. Americans are understandably scared, and leaders are under pressure to act quickly to reverse the trend.

Worsened by the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic, the current rise in gun violence is occuring in tandem with an influx of new guns, especially in neighborhoods with stubbornly high crime rates. Shifts in policing post-pandemic, and in response to nationwide racial equity protests, along with the budget woes of effective violence intervention programs, have catalyzed an increase in gun violence across the country. 

Despite the complex reasons for the increase in shootings, politicians and news media too often ignore the facts, instead blaming America’s youth for the crimes of a highly concentrated, high-risk few. Looking to score points with scared voters and stoke their atavistic instincts, some elected officials have demonized the young and called for the return of draconian, punitive policies, like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recently implemented youth curfew and New York Mayor Eric Adams’ support of amending “Raise the Age” legislation to enable charges against 16 and 17 year olds when guns are involved. These approaches resurrect the debunked junk science of decades past that wrongly predicted an entire generation of so-called super-predators. Namely, Black and brown teenagers.

But the data is clear: Children are not behind an increase in gun violence in U.S. cities. Historically, juveniles are responsible for a small portion of shootings and homicides, as I and my team learned when we reduced homicides in Oakland by half between 2012 and 2018. This remains the case today, even as regressive rhetoric resurfaces in America’s most hallowed national institutions, from Congress to the news media.

A recent report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit, shows that arrest rates have declined far more quickly for youth than adults over the last quarter century, the youth arrest rate for all serious violent crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) falling 72 percent from 1994 to 2019 — far greater than the decline for any adult age cohort. 

It is therefore more crucial than ever for Americans to understand that youth crime continues a remarkable and steady overall decline as the nation incarcerates fewer young people. Over the course of the last 15 years, hard work by many advocates, youth workers, enlightened probation officials, and an avalanche of research drastically reduced the incarceration of children in America, and therefore crime. 

For a time, reducing youth imprisonment was a bipartisan agenda. When I started teaching workshops in California’s juvenile facilities in the mid-90s, for example, our state system — then called the Youth Authority — incarcerated more than 10,000 youth. Now known as the Department of Juvenile Justice, it holds fewer than 800 youth, and the entire state youth system is closing next year. 

Similarly, in Washington, D.C., where I served as an administrator for the city’s juvenile justice agency, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), there were 1,200 youth committed to our care in 2009. As of March 2022, less than two decades later, there are fewer than 120 youth committed to DYRS. 

And this steep decline didn’t just happen on the liberal coasts of the country. While there is still much work left to do, juvenile detention rates decreased 70 percent nationwide over the last decade and a half, as delinquency cases over the same period declined 56 percent overall, with just 1 percent sent to criminal court. 

It is essential to understand that America’s youth are not the drivers of this gun violence if we’re serious about stopping it. Along with its partners, my organization, The National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, recently conducted a detailed analysis of gun violence in several cities around the country. Relying on interviews and data from law enforcement, probation and parole, and community organizations, researchers examined all 341 homicides that occurred in D.C. from 2019–2020, and all 522 nonfatal injury shootings that occurred in 2020. Juveniles accounted for less than 10 percent of those involved in shootings and homicides. 

Our central finding offers a solution: Every year, about 500 identifiable people in D.C. drive as much as 70 percent of the city’s gun violence, according to the city’s report, and as few as 200 people at any one point in time are driving a majority of homicides and shootings in the city. 

“If the government and community groups can come together to reach those high-risk people,” the report reads, “invest in them, and make intensive intervention efforts, the city can reduce homicides and help save lives.”

In this photo from 2016, 9-year-old Keaton Brown holds balloons during a Miami ceremony paying tribute to children lost to gun violence in South Florida. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Our study found that victims of homicides and the people who commit them often overlap in life circumstances and risk factors. Many are involved in neighborhood cliques with varying levels of organization, and many have history with the criminal justice system. A significant number have previously been the victim of a shooting or connected in some way to a recent shooting.

“This very small number of high risk individuals are identifiable,” I told the DCist in February. “Their violence is predictable and therefore it is preventable.” 

It is the responsibility and work of our civic, community, and criminal justice leaders to take into account the characteristics of individuals, identify the networks associated with the highest risk of violence, and establish “a common understanding of the local violence problem,” as our report argues. 

Incarcerating young people is the wrong response to a rise in violent crime, because it does not address the root causes of that violence, does not prevent or stop it, and inflicts disproportionate harm on youth and their communities. Community-based violence intervention can be more effective and less harmful than enforcement responses, though it carries its own risks

Reducing gun violence depends on our society’s ability to identify the people most at risk and focus resources and attention on them. Policy makers and politicians must act deliberately and quickly to address violence in their communities, but they should not scapegoat children along the way. To steer clear of the unnecessary, ineffective, and harmful overuse of incarceration, we must use the data and implement change from the bottom up, not the other way around.