Research Watch: Arson and Kids
Juvenile Arson, 1997
Howard N. Snyder, Ph.D.
National Center for Juvenile Justice, Pittsburgh, PA
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Fact Sheet #91, two pages
Free on the web at www.ojjdp.ncjrs.org or two-page Fact Sheet free by calling (800) 851-3420
Of all the crimes committed in the United States, arson is the one most likely to result in the arrest of someone under the age of 18. According to a recent national study, half of all persons arrested for arson are under 18, and most are under 15. Most are boys, most are white, and most are treated leniently.
The FBI defines arson as any willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn a house, public building, vehicle, or other personal property. In 1997, 110,000 incidents of arson were reported to police in the United States — 41 reported arsons for every 100,000 U.S. residents. The arson rate was highest in large cities (87 per 100,000 inhabitants) and lowest in rural areas (18 per 100,000 inhabitants). The average financial loss reported to police was $11,300.
There were 20,000 arrests where arson was the most serious offense. Of the half where the person arrested was under 18, 89 percent were male, 79 percent were white. Of the under-18-year-olds, 67 percent were under 15, and 35 percent were age 12 or younger.
“It’s astounding how young these kids are” Dr. Howard Snyder, a statistician who wrote a fact sheet describing the study results, told Youth Today. “These are very young kids, and most people believe that arson at a young age may indicate serious problems. Don’t ignore it.”
If the police send a case to the courts, the decision of whether the case should be handled formally or informally is often based on the severity of the offense, the youth’s previous record, and the ability of the parties involved to resolve it. More than half (53 percent) of juvenile arson cases handled by the courts in 1996 were formally processed, but only about 1 percent of formally processed arson cases were transferred to criminal court for prosecution as if they were adults. In almost two-thirds of formally processed juvenile arson cases, the court ordered sanctions: most of those offenders (59 percent) were put on probation, although 27 percent were placed in a residential facility. Most of the others were ordered to pay a fine and/or restitution.
Of the almost half of the cases that were handled informally, 47 percent were dismissed. In the other half, the youth involved voluntarily agreed to comply with probation conditions, pay fines or restitution, and/or enter some form of residential treatment.
Zuckerman, Diana. "Arson and Kids." Research Watch review of "Juvenile Arson." Youth Today, May 1999, p. 12.
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