The recent shooting death of a Salt Lake City boy one week before his 15th birthday is the latest in a series of incidents in which kids of middle school and early high school age have been killed, wounded or arrested in serious felony cases.
A 16-year-old boy was shot and killed in Kearns in May, while the following week, another 16-year-old boy was shot and wounded in a Salt Lake County parking lot. Before that, a 15-year-old boy was paralyzed by a gunshot in a case police believe is connected to the shooting of a 14-year-old girl at a West Valley City shopping mall.
While authorities are reluctant to pronounce a distinct trend toward more violence among younger kids, the cases at least form a pattern that is disturbing. Drug and gang activity are underlying factors, as is the apparent ease with which children of adolescent age get ahold of guns. A question that needs to be explored is whether there is an emerging culture of nonchalance among youths toward gun violence in the parts of the community where these incidents have occurred. Such a culture has afflicted neighborhoods in Chicago, Baltimore and other urban enclaves where rampant gun violence speaks to a “quick-to-shoot” mentality common in the recent incidents here.
Aside from the shootings, there are other felony cases involving young offenders currently in juvenile court. A 15-year-old is charged with a series of aggravated robberies while a 16-year-old faces charges in a violent stabbing attack. In the aggregate, these cases raise questions about the effectiveness of programs in the juvenile justice system that would aim to deter such behavior. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told the Deseret News it is time to re-examine that system to see if it is “proportionately responsive to deter criminal behavior.”
The spate of violent juvenile crime is perhaps being overshadowed by concerns over crime activity in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande District. What’s happening in neighborhoods where the shootings have occurred, and where the victims and suspects have grown up, is every bit as disturbing as the lawlessness associated with the homeless district in the downtown area, which has acquired the full attention of city and county leaders and has become a top priority of legislative leaders and the governor’s office.
We agree with District Attorney Gill and others in the law enforcement community that a review of policies governing the disposition of young offenders in the juvenile system is in order. The number and nature of violent crimes by offenders barely out of childhood speak to a pattern of behavior that shouldn’t be written off as mere coincidence or anomaly.