The rise of youth violence in Europe

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Last week's brutal schoolyard murder of four Arkansas girls and a teacher was front page-news not only in America but all across Europe. British papers ran pictures of the cherubic suspects, aged 13 and 11, and the headlines reading MASSACRE BOYS COULD BE FREE AT 18. Roy Taylor, the headmaster of the Dunblane, Scotland school, where 16 children and their teacher were shot two years ago last month, expressed sadness and shock. Meanwhile, Germans and French were outraged by the report one of the purported killers had been taught to use a gun by his father at the age of 7, All in all, European reaction was one of horror at what seemed another typical American nightmare of criminal violence.

But youth violence is not typically American anymore. While overall juvernile crime, including common offences like shoplifting and vandalism, has remained flat in many European countries, youth violence is on the rise. In France, minors now commit nearly half of all violent robberies. In Britain, the mass soul searching that followed the murder of toddler Jamie Burger by two 10-year-olds in 1993 hasn't stemmed further blood-shed. Last December, teenage members of a north London gang were jailed for their part in a grisly crime spree, including a mugging, a fatal stabbing of a teacher and the gang rape of an Austrian tourist.

Europe's problem has not reached American proportions, where yearly juvenile arrests top 2 million. In many European countries, juvenile arrests are still in the tens of thousands. But more than the sheer number of incidents, it is the changing nature of youth crime that disturbs Europeans. A report by Dr. Christian Pfeiffer of the Criminology Research Institute of Lower Saxons found that the violent crimes by minors increased by at least 50 percent from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s in England and Wales, Sweden, Denmark. Switzerland, France, Italy and Poland. As a result, most of these countries have begun to question the traditionally lenient punishments given young criminals. Some German officials want to lower the minimal criminal trial age from 14 to12. France has instituted curfews in certain neighbourhoods. Europe has begun to reflect on the larger social and economic problems that may have given rise to event like the March gunshot murder of a grocery-store owner in Normandy. The suspects, three 15-year-olds, were attempting to rob her store.

It's impossible to point to a single broad explanation for the crime problem. if, in Eastern Europe, the rise in youth crime coincided with the fall of communism. though the political upheaval is largely over, its effects are not. Young people can no longer look forward to lifetime employment; gaps between rich and poor are widening. In Spain, the crime increase has been linked to a burgeoning drug trade. Nearly 90 percent of the teens picked up for offences like burglary and bank robbery are drug users. In Italy, young immigrants from the former Yugoslavia who can't find work are the fastest­ growing group of criminals. Shay Bilchek, head of the US. Justice Departments Office of Juvenile Justice and delinquency, sums up the problem: "Kids are the most malleable part of the society," he says. 'They do exponentially worse than adults do in bad environments."

Maybe that explains a French epidemic of school violence. Last January, a 20­year- old was stabbed to death while picking up his brother at a high school near Paris. A few days later, a group of four young people (including two minors) was implicated in a fire that was set in a high school in Tours. No one was injured but the damage was extensive. In all, more than 1000 acts of violence were committed in French schools in 1977.

Jaycees Pain, a professor of education at the University of Paris and author of "School Violence: Germany, England and France, " believes that this kind of violence is part of the problem. "Violence against school institutions marks a loss of faith in the institutions and adults, and in society at large," Pain says. In a country with stubbornly high levels of unemployment, it's not hard to understand why young people would feel hopeless about their future.

Youth violence in France isn't limited to schools. Violent acts on buses and trains, including vandalism and attacks on drivers, are up nearly 300 percent in the past four years. Residents of low income neighbourhoods live in fear of marauding teens. Youth­crime laws in France make it tough to punish offenders with jail terms. The same holds true in most of Europe.

Some European law-enforcement officials are now considering "American strategies", namely cracking down hard on all youth offences, even petty crime. In Stains, a working class northern suburb of Paris, the tough approach has been an important part of a community crime-prevention program. A year and a half ago, drug­dealing youth gangs controlled the streets. People were afraid to go out at night, and businesses were leaving. The murder of a 15-year-old boy, reportedly by another teen, outside a supermarket finally pushed the neighbourhood into action. Mayor Michel Beaumale set aside money for crime prevention. Police began a series of drug sweeps. Local courts speeded up juvenile trials and increased penalties. Community groups and schools urged families and students to report all crime. Within two years, the crime rate dropped 12 percent.

Stains's program worked not only because police and courts got tougher on crime but because the entire community banded together. Tougher, longer sentences for younger offenders have been given much of the credit for American's recent drop in youth crime. But the fact is that at the same time the law was cracking down on kids, money for prevention was rising. Over the past four years, the U.S. government has funded nearly 50,000 community crime prevention programs and has given $20 million to Big Brothers/ Sisters, a group that sponsors sports and activities for kids after school, when youth crime tends to peak.

With this balancing act to mind, Europe is searching for new forms of crime prevention. Building more jails and locking youths up at the rates Americans have doesn't appeal to most Europeans. But German style "vacation therapy", in which young offenders take taxpayer- funded trips to places like Canary islands, doesn't seem right either. Slowly, countries are tailoring solutions to fit their individual problems. In Italy, government officials are working to tighten immigration laws, even as they fund programs like the All Colors Project, which will open new vocational-training centres for both Italians and foreigners. In Spain, certain organisations provide after school programs, housing and vocational training for drug addicted youths.

In Britain, Home Secretary Jack Straw has introduced pilot programs for curfews for children under 10 and the electronic tagging of repeat offenders. At the same time, Straw is pushing for parents to be held legally responsible for their children's behaviour. "There has been all this stuff about children's rights," said Straw recently. "The most important right children have is to be children and have others take responsibility for them."

Officials in Random, a blue-collar industrial city in Poland, agree. Since October, everyone under 18 in Random has been put on notice that they- and their parents- can be questioned by the police if they are on the streets between 11p.m. and 5 a.m. The program was launched after a series of three murders by minors, one of which involved a 16-year-old boy who smashed the head of a middle-aged man with a baseball bat. Authorities in Random stress that this is not a curfew, which would be illegal under current laws. But the practical effect is clear: Very few minors roam the streets at night anymore. The Polish Parliament is weighing whether it should endorse such initiatives. "The question is whether you want a police patrol to stop when they see a 12 year-old on the street at 3a.m.," says national police spokesperson Pawel Biedziak. "Or would you refer to have a police car that just keeps going?" In Random, as in many parts of the Europe, there's no longer any doubt about the answer.(Adapted from Young, Tough and in Trouble - Newsweek April 6, 1998)