(NewsNation) — Communities across the country are reportedly facing a rise in youth violence. Federal data shows the number of killings committed by children younger than 14 recently hit its highest level in two decades.
Sheriff Mike Chitwood of Volusia County, Florida, believes this could be primarily because of gangs. Chitwood told “On Balance” host Leland Vittert on Thursday that gangs are turning to minors to commit more violent crimes since they often receive lesser sentences than adults.
“The laws haven’t caught up to the fact that the gangs outsmart us,” Chitwood told Vittert. “Give a gun to a juvenile, drugs to a juvenile, a carjacking, a home invasion — the penalties are much, much less. The gangs, as the adults, benefit financially and the juveniles, the people who commit the violent crimes, are sentenced as juveniles. So, it’s a win-win for the gangs.”
NewsNation senior national correspondent Brian Entin recently watched child after child being brought before a judge in juvenile court. He said it was “disturbing and sad to watch” and noted that many parents did not show up for their child’s hearing.
Chitwood said many parents “don’t want anything to do with it” and that gangs try to isolate a child from their support system.
“Gangs take the place of the parents, the church and the community, so that’s their network,” Chitwood explained.
Former Miami Police Capt. Jorge Colina told Entin that gangs are recruiting minors at younger and younger ages because they are “easy prey.”
While the majority of known gang members are adults, law enforcement data, as of 2008, shows that two out of every five gang members are younger than 18.
Chitwood says it’s all about power for gangs, which can be easier to achieve with minors due to influence.
“You have people who don’t have a viable role in society. They try to figure out a way to assimilate into society. Whether it’s a hate group, whether it’s a gang, no matter what it is, they believe (in) that violence and intimidation. … They think that gives them power that they don’t have because they’re so disenfranchised,” Chitwood said.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry says some children want to join a gang for self-definition, a sense of connection, peer pressure, a source of protection or a way to make money.
The academy identified the following risk factors: Too little supervision, unstructured free time, a history of violence or gang involvement in the home, a lack of positive role models, exposure to media that glorifies violence and low self-esteem.
They say parents can watch out for certain warning signs that may mean their child is involved in a gang such as carrying weapons or using drugs; having unexplained money; wearing clothing of all one type, style or color; using hand signs or words with hidden messages and withdrawing from family.