Juvenile Homicide:  Etiology, Treatment, Controversy 

The most serious type of crime, Criminal Homicide or Murder, is the “unlawful taking of the life of another” and regarded as the most dangerous type of crime (“HG”, 1995-2016).  Two-thirds of the United States have adopted a penal code system that breaks murder down into separate degrees:  First Degree (Premeditated), Second Degree (Intentional, not premeditated), Manslaughter (death is due to unintentional actions), Justifiable Homicide (self- protection), and other homicide (“HG”, 1995-2016).  Other homicide includes felony murder in which the murder was a direct result of involvement in a crime that led to the death (“HG”, 1995-2016).  Within these categories lies juvenile homicide.  

According to the “Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)” Statistical Briefing Book, juvenile homicide peaked in the 1980’s and had drastically declined throughout the 1990’s and currently (“Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention”, 2015).  However, juvenile homicide is a phenomenon we often hear in our communities.  According to the OJJDP, juvenile homicide is committed most often by males between the ages of fifteen and seventeen and of American Indian decent (“Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention”, 2015).  The rate of criminal activity among those of American Indian descent is alarmingly higher than other race across gender and age groups and is most commonly occurs with the use of alcohol and during domestic violence incidents (Perry, 2004).  American Indians also reported higher violent victimization rates, including homicide, in comparison to other races as well (Perry, 2004).  Perry also found a recent phenomenon of gang relatedness to violent crime among the American Indian population with higher rates occurring in Alaska, California, and Oklahoma (2004).   Although juvenile homicide rates are on the decline, it remains a serious problem within communities.  Post-incarceration studies implicate the necessity of prevention and intervention strategies. 

Typical Perpetrator

Juvenile Homicide research is limited to only cases referred for clinical evaluation due to their rarity and legal protective circumstance (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  Researching Juvenile Homicide rates proved tedious and difficult, identifying areas of potential future research.  Statistics were limited to certain case studies and an overall generalization of crime rate and therefore, may fluctuate through the course of research.  Explanations for the variance may include a child tried as an adult or a caretaker held accountable for the juvenile’s acions in addition to strict privacy protection laws.

Los Angeles Juvenile Homicide Rates

Research indicates the majority of juvenile homicide occurs by males between the age of fifteen and seventeen, but several occur as early as ten years old (“Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention”, 2015).   According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, over a ten-year span, homicide rates in Los Angeles, California for all age groups decreased from a reported 1094 homicide and negligent manslaughter incidents to just 299 in 2012 (2011).   The FBI’s UCR further breaks down homicide on Table 36 to include a review of the number of homicides committed by individuals under the age of fifteen and the age of eighteen (2011).   Table 36 maintains a decrease in homicide rates for Los Angeles from 2009-2010, but specifies in 2009, 773 homicides were committed by persons under the age of 18 (“United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Table 36, 2011).   However, seventy-five of those homicides were committed by adolescents under the age of fifteen (“United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Table 36, 2011).  In 2010, the number of juvenile homicides reported was down to 718, of which seventy were committed by adolescents under the age of fifteen (“United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Table 36, 2011).  The statistics indicate the majority of homicides are committed by legal adults.  However, juvenile homicides rates validate a need for understanding the drive that motivates homicidal behavior.

Profile of Juvenile Homicide Offender

Establishing consistency in profiles for juveniles convicted of homicide poses difficulties.  It is important to understand the motivations behind the behavior of the juvenile to properly develop a profile (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  A study indicated juveniles convicted of homicide demonstrate a higher MMPI profile for those who committed murder through criminal motivation than those who did so during conflict motivation (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  Due to the nature of clinical diversity of adolescent murder offenders, it is important to understand there are three categorical groups of Juvenile Homicide Offenders (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  The conflict group comprises of adolescents who engage in interpersonal conflict with the victim triggering the behavior (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  The crime group comprises of adolescents who committed homicide while engaging in some other type of criminal activity (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  The third group consists of those psychotic at the time of the incidence which have the least information available as a protection for the offender (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).

Risk Factors and Etiology

A study published in 1988 utilized the MMPI in a comparison of Juvenile Homicide offenders and juveniles convicted of larceny (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  The mean age of the study was seventeen years old adolescents with the majority being male (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  It was found adolescents who have greater school problems, substance abuse problems, and prior criminal activity is at high risk for committing criminal homicide as a juvenile (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  Adolescents at risk for criminal homicide also exhibit higher feelings of alienation and distress, poor psychological insight, and tend to somaticize, externalize, and deny personal responsibility for their actions (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  They may also exhibit impulsivity, violent tempers, malingering, or exaggerations (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  The MMPI comparison study also revealed higher F-scores in adolescents who were convicted of criminal type homicide which is indicative of severe delinquency (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988) that potentially manifested through other negative behaviors before the actual homicidal incident.  

The study identified predictors of juvenile homicide of conflict type as adolescents who endure more stressful events before the incident and less maladjusted and less severe disturbance than the criminal type (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  Diagnoses such as antisocial personality, conduct, explosive, dysthymic, and mixed personality (including antisocial features) disorders appeared typical among adolescents convicted of conflict type homicide (Cornell, Miller, & Benedek, 1988).  Siblicide, although more common in adults, is typical of conflict type homicide.  Siblicide often occurs due to long-standing rivalries, stress, and conflict with siblings that begins in early childhood as the child vies for parental and affection (Peck & Heide, 2012).  The attention seeking behavior turns into a struggle of attaining status, power, and space in the home environment (Peck & Heide, 2012).
Juvenile homicide offenders murder for various reasons:  Psychological disorders, neurological impairments, history of family violence, substance abuse, early onset of aggressive and antisocial behaviors, or learning disabilities (Khachatryan, 2015).  Motivations of offenders include orientations of conflict, crime, parricide, psychotic episode, and sexually driven (Khachatryan, 2015).  Statistics dictate an urgency in the intervention of children who possess risk factors associated with potential violence in the future.  Targeting youth exposed to certain risk factors such as poverty, familial abuse patterns, issues with peers, and other social, familial, peer, and educational risk factors will help deter behavior potentiating homicidal ideations and tendencies before they take effect in the youth (Catalano, Ph. D., Loeber, Ph. D., & McKinney, Ph. D., 1999).


According to Alfred Adler and his theory of individual psychology, familial influences central to individual personality (Whiteman, McHale, & Soli, 2011) explain the deficits that evolve from the struggle of a child who strives for power within familial relationships (Peck & Heide, 2012).  Adler’s theory proposed the inferiority complex and delves into social comparisons and power dynamics within families central to the individual sense of self (Whiteman, McHale, & Soli, 2011).  Children have an innate need to overcome potential feelings of inferiority leading the child to de-identify through means that will allow a separation in the personality between siblings (Whiteman, McHale, & Soli, 2011). 

 Fratricide is a last resort tactic as a means to eliminate the competition (Whiteman, McHale, & Soli, 2011).  Consistent with Darwinism, sibling rivalry derives from natural competition which are forms of social conflict within the familial setting (Whiteman, McHale, & Soli, 2011).  Ontogeny promotes sibling differentiation evident in learned family roles, strategies, and other behaviors (Sulloway, 2010).  Differences become encapsulated in personality and familial sentiment including parental authority and familial attachments which according to natural selection, the child will favor the family member he or she feels the least competition (Sulloway, 2010).  

In contrast, adolescents who exhibit homicidal tendencies or behaviors exhibit the need for control with minimal shame and remorse (Whiteman, McHale, & Soli, 2011).  Children’s brain development lasts through late adolescence as the higher-order executive functioning areas of the brain develop and fine tune allowing the ability to exhibit impulse control, risk avoidance, and pre-planning (Moore, 2014) which solidifies personality development as described by Adler.   

Albert Bandura proposed a theory which included four stages of imitation:  Attention (close contact), reproduction (imitation of superiors), retention (understanding concepts), and reproduction (role model behavior) (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).  He believed that the process of observation lead to learning in the environment in corroboration with mediating processes which occur between stimuli and responses (McLeod, 2016).  He believed that there is thought put into modeling observed behavior attributing cognition as a motivator in behavior modeling (McLeod).  Julian Rotter developed a learning theory that explained the effect of behavior impacts the motivational engagement in a specific behavior (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).  Rotter believed the motivation of behavior is derived from the desire to avoid negative consequence while attaining positive results (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).  Individuals are more likely to engage in behavior that results in a positive outcome implicating environmental causes in addition to psychological drives as the motivation of behavior (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).  Bandura adopted Rotter and earlier theories of behaviorism and developed social learning theory which suggests that the individual observes and remembers a behavior, reproduces the behavior, and gains motivation to continue the behavior (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).   Social Learning Theory suggests individuals behave according to acceptable norms and those behaviors unacceptable by societal standard result in humiliation creating a motivational drive to avoid or eliminate experienced humiliation (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011). 

Applying Social Learning Theory to homicide explains possibility of why the crime was committed but also adds support to the risk factors discussed earlier.  An individual may adopt a behavior to avoid humiliation or in reaction to humiliation (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).  A child who endured abuse and victimization of environment, may have experienced humiliation which triggered the development of a humiliation response (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).  Signs or triggers associated with the humiliating experience create a frustration response in turn triggering internal stimuli which creates a motivation to prevent future humiliation (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).  As the child grows, he or she finds no reward in experience, rather anticipates humiliation in all experiences and heightens the level of frustration (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).   The individual then attempts to find release of the built-up aggression and search for that release (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).   Often times, the cause of the humiliated aggression is not available causing them to search a catharsis for the humiliation endured in earlier childhood (Unified Psychotherapy Project, 2011).  As children often lack impulse control, he or she may feel an imminent need to destroy the humiliation causing them to react in an overly aggressive manner holding potential for homicidal ideations or behaviors.  Although the social learning theory is more typically explained in serial murder, it can be adopted to pertain to juvenile homicide offenders in the essence, that the memory is more easily recalled and triggered than in later adulthood.   

A psychodynamic approach to juvenile homicide indulges in explanations the wishes of death secondary to the oedipal conflict (sibling rivalry), aggressive behavior explained as a defense mechanism against feminity and passive feelings, lack of ego control manifesting in aggressively violent behavior in response to past traumatic experiences, deprivation at an early age causing the ego to be under developed and vulnerable to violent aggression, an effort to save a self-destructive ego by displacing aggression onto another person, or acting out parental desire of murder (Meyers, 1992).  Media portrayal of the glorification of violence dictate a societal acceptance in combination with the ready availability of firearms allows reaction to internalized aggression to become externalized at an easy cost (Meyers, 1992).  Diagnostically, neurological abnormalities found in course of EEG’s, evidence of severe head trauma, history of seizures, and deficits in neurological testing are indicative of potential homicidal activity in individuals (Meyers, 1992).  Additionally, in 42% of juvenile homicide acts, alcohol or illicit drug use was prevalent along with a diagnosis of some type of conduct disorder and presumed deficit in moral reasoning (Meyers, 1992).  Understanding the etiology of criminal behaviors leads to a bland understanding of why the individual reacts in a heinous manner, but understanding societal perceptions explain the need to further educate communities on the importance of recognizing deficits or abnormalities early in order to prevent such dangerous acts.  

Societal Perception and Reaction

Establishing culpability requires the analysis of unique characteristics that reduce the offender’s responsibility for their actions (Moore, 2014).  Certain risk factors predispose juveniles to potential negative behaviors.  Targeting areas such as poverty, familial abuse patterns, issues with peers, and other social, familial, peer, and educational risk factors help decipher culpability and the extent that a juvenile should be punished or the potential of rehabilitation (Catalano, Ph. D., Loeber, Ph. D., & McKinney, Ph. D., 1999).    Often, juveniles convicted of homicide are sentenced to long sentences that carry consequences throughout the lifespan.  Society perceives crimes such as homicide as “sickening” and one the individual will continue to repeat if allowed to re-enter society.  In reality, homicide by a juvenile reflects transient immaturity, but not irreparable corruption as the plasticity of a child’s brain allows for behavioral modification to occur (Moore, 2014) if given the opportunity.

Juvenile Homicide tends to render the offender to life within a cell or mental institution, as societal belief is fogged with the belief that “once a murderer, always a murderer.”  However, according to Moore, a juvenile under fourteen legally does not possess criminal intent and therefore, cannot be tried as an adult (2014).  Younger offenders are deemed to have the ability to rehabilitate and may be sentenced to less harsh sentences.  However, juveniles over the age of fourteen are perceived as knowing right from wrong and able to exhibit self-control despite the research discussed previously, and therefore may be tried as an adult and face the harshest sentences.  It is important to understand a juvenile tried as an adult and sentenced to life institutionalized is denying the juvenile the chance to exhibit growth and development (Moore, 2014).  Denying the juvenile education or trade skills to redirect negative thoughts and behavior reduces his or her chances to become a productive member of society and dooms them “bad” for life (Moore, 2014).  Denying the possibility of rehabilitation eliminates hope and deters the psyche from allowing the individual to flourish (Moore, 2014).   


Preventing homicidal behavior begins with recognizing the risk factors associated with the development of the behavior.  The risk factors discussed above are alarms that indicate a child in need of intervention.   Familial risk factors should be recognized as the foundation of the child and begins in the home creating the acceptable behaviors the child exhibits in society (Bartol & Bartol, 2014).  Familial risk factors include faulty or inadequate parenting, sibling influences, and child maltreatment or abuse (Bartol & Bartol, 2014).  According to the U.  S.  Department of Justice, family structure (parenting skills, size, home discord, treatment of children, and antisocial parents) is linked with juvenile offending (Shader).  A study indicated predictors of violent offending including harsh discipline, lack of supervision from parents, and parental conflict and aggression within the home (Shader).  Recognizing the risk factors associated with homicidal behavior may lead to earlier intervention that will overturn the potential for homicidal ideations that may lead to the behavior.


  School-based interventions for at-risk youth include competence training for children and training for educators and parents to encourage proper socialization and interaction with peers (Catalano, Ph. D., Loeber, Ph. D., & McKinney, Ph. D., 1999).  Studies indicate school-based interventions effective in reducing aggressive behavior, substance abuse, and sexual activity in addition to increasing academic performance for the Seattle Social Development Project (Catalano, Ph. D., Loeber, Ph. D., & McKinney, Ph. D., 1999).   The effectiveness may be attributed to a positive support system in the internal and external environment of the youth in which he or she learns to recognize their ability to function at the appropriate social level and find acceptance in society.  In addition to in-school interventions, after school programs deter self-alienation and promote socialization while introducing self-protective factors through the promotion of prosocial and leisure activities such as sports and studying (Catalano, Ph. D., Loeber, Ph. D., & McKinney, Ph. D., 1999).   Enveloping the youth in after school programs allows them to explore different outlets which enables positive personality and social development leading to a more productive individual as they find their place in the world.

Mentoring programs in which adults act as role models providing a positive and supportive atmosphere for youth raised in a single parent home may allow for the child to experience healthy release and build trust-based relationships where it may otherwise lack in the home (Catalano, Ph. D., Loeber, Ph. D., & McKinney, Ph. D., 1999).   Although these programs have not proven highly beneficial as a simple big brother / big sister opportunity, it was found when the mentor incorporates cognitive behavioral techniques in the time spent with the child, academic success increased, truancy reduced, and behavior became more confident when rewards were offered (Catalano, Ph. D., Loeber, Ph. D., & McKinney, Ph. D., 1999).   Mentoring programs also prove beneficial in increasing the child’s perception of self-ability and self-esteem (Catalano, Ph. D., Loeber, Ph. D., & McKinney, Ph. D., 1999) which promotes a positive outlook on personal potential.

  Media intervention techniques may also prove beneficial.  Running campaigns that promote acceptable positive behavior as an attempt to change the societal attitude and educate the community (Catalano, Ph. D., Loeber, Ph. D., & McKinney, Ph. D., 1999).   Rather than ads and movies that promote and glorify the “thug” life, ads that deter their behavior may cause a child not to desire the life of the streets.  Promoting individuals who have defeated the odds and didn’t fall to a statistic by not following those negative behaviors may allow a child to have hope and begin dreaming of a better future. Additionally, allowing reformed offenders to advocate to youth their experience may lead to behavior modification as the youth may develop a fear of the consequence of negative behavior.  Or the youth may develop a desire to be upstanding as an effort to avoid the harsh reality of the road they are currently at risk to endure.

According to Dr. Wade C. Meyers and children who kill often have circumstance enveloped in cognitive, psychological, neuropsychiatric, educational, and familial disturbances amendable to intervention and treatment when made available (1992).  However, often times, the legal system, economic status, and societal perception and reaction create a disposition in the child causing them to carry aggressive behavior into adolescence as the chance for treatment diminishes (Meyers, 1992).  

Treatment Methods

Treatment of juvenile homicide offenders may include psychotherapy.  Psychotherapy is a controversial effort due to the variance in the length of treatment and its aim at treating antisocial behavior which may not be exhibited by the youth as the homicide may have been committed with no prior warning (Meyers, 1992).  A six-year-old girl who murdered her four-month old sibling through intracranial injury was treated with insight-oriented play therapy and proved effective in her treatment (Meyers, 1992).  Two other six-year-old children were treated in a similar manner in response to their attempted murders of siblings in response to the mother’s unconscious wish to be relieved of the duty (Meyers, 1992).  Primarily, it is essential to develop an empathetic, inquisitive, and neutral attitude toward the homicidal child to develop a level of trust and therapeutic alliance (Meyers, 1992).  Immediate Intervention needs to include ways to channel aggression into play and verbal expression to further elaborate conflict and work through it (Meyers, 1992).  At the adolescent age, studies indicate early oral deprivation and childhood development hindrances due to severed familial relationships which lead to underdeveloped egos and aggressive outbursts (Meyers, 1992).  In treatment, it is essential to allow the adolescent to enter a state of regression and learn the union of the mother and child and the unrealistic perception the adolescent envelops bringing them to the realization that the two are separate individuals (Meyers, 1992).  Although it’s effectiveness is controversial, psychotherapy is perceived as an adjunctive treatment that may play the central role in therapy as the experiences and thoughts leading to the homicidal behavior are brought to light (Meyers, 1992).  

Treatment may require inpatient hospitalization which aims to redirect homicidal impulses, strengthen ego function, and reduce parent-child conflict (Meyers, 1992).  The use of a psychodynamic approach encompassed with insight oriented treatment for the child in conjunction with interpretive conjoint psychotherapy for the parents to understand why the behavior was exhibited and ways to improve the relationship (Meyers, 1992).  Long term hospitalization psychiatric care may be effective for those who continue in states of psychosis and treatment proves ineffective.  In the event of non-response to treatment, the youth may be treated pharmacologically dependent on mental illness or disorders diagnosed (Meyers, 1992).

Institutional placement often times is ineffective as the quality of treatment is usually low due to the economic standing of the facility and lack of understanding of the psychological aspect that motivated the homicide (Meyers, 1992).  However, detention has proven to lower recidivism presumably due to the length of incarceration allows for further development and maturation of the ego, the act was a one-time occurrence in response to extreme environmental stressors, the programs consistency in setting standard and enforcement of following rules, or because the phenomenon of spontaneous remission as the adolescent was allowed time to mature in a structured setting (Meyers, 1992).  


Although the media continually defines murder as a heinous act of insanity that breaches the moral code of all humans and is call to lock the offender away, research indicates falseness in the claim.  Juvenile Homicide offenders often times appear to demonstrate reactive behaviors based on negative and harsh childhood experience.  Although society claims people need to take responsibility for their actions, it is evident that individual actions may be attributable to early experience responsible for current behavior.  A child reacts based on observed reactions and internal motivations, often times unidentifiable to them as it proves normal behavior within the immediate environment.  

Statistically, a decline in juvenile homicide rates implies effective prevention, intervention, and treatment available for those who exhibit homicidal ideation or behavior.  The decline may be attributed to stricter laws, better therapeutic advancement, or strengthened familial ties.  However, communities within the poverty guidelines hold the highest risk as environmental stressors are greater among those who struggle to get by.  In an effort to bring peace within the home, a child may react impulsively as he or she deems the best way to achieve peace and release aggression.  

Juvenile homicide offenders hold potential at rehabilitation.  Through the use of psychodynamic therapeutic interventions and treatments, establishing the root cause of the motivation is the first step to achieve rehabilitation.  Ideally, the therapy of the individual should combine with others of the immediate environment to promote understanding and encourage a more positive environment for the child to grow.  Often times the child has experienced a deficit in maturation and ego development which is indicative of repressed aggression that must be redirected in a positive manner.  Redirection begins by restoring severed familial relationships and learning how to channel negative aggression into an acceptable behavior.  Ultimately, a child’s fate is dependent on the foundation of which he or she experiences from the womb.


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