For some time now, I’ve been trying to verify a hunch that whereas murder was once an ‘adult’ activity, it has recently become more a preserve of the young —indeed, the very young.
About three years ago, I noticed the astonishing number of news stories online about murders in which the victim or the perpetrator was in their teens.
Often, if the victim was in their teens then so, it seemed, was the perpetrator. What was even more alarming was that in the case of teenage perpetrators of all kinds of murders there were often two or more individuals involved.
Trying to get specific numbers is difficult. Curiously, I have twice tried requesting information on the numbers of teenagers convicted for murder from our own Ministry of Justice, but without success (even though the website says this is possible under the Freedom of Information Act).
Today, however, I found that the Google news archive now shows a timeline of results for a search, and this is very interesting.
If you click here, you will see the result for the search term "guilty of murder" (this should open in a new window or tab, so you will need to come back to this page afterwards). At first glance this might seem to suggest the murder conviction rate has gone up since 1860, declined in the 1940s, and then has risen again since the 1960s. But of course what we also have here is the number of filed news accounts and a dramatically increasing population. On its own, the graph is interesting, but tells us nothing about rates of increase or decline.
However, if you click here, you will see the results for the same search term, only this time just for the period 1950-2009, and this is where it starts to get interesting.
Now click here, and see the results for the search term 'teenager + "guilty of murder"', again for 1950-2009. This time, we have factored out the increase in news media and population. The difference is, I'm sure you'll agree, striking. Click between the two pages or tabs to compare the two. Whilst the rate per head of population may not have changed, the rate of reports has increased dramatically. Indeed, between 1975 and 1995 it increased exponentially. If you scroll down the page, you will also see that the stories are, indeed, generally about teenagers who have carried out, and been convicted of, murders.
However, there may still be other factors involved, so as a kind of control try comparing 'wife+"guilty of murder"' and 'husband+"guilty of murder"' over the same period as before. This time it can be seen that both rates of reporting have increased - and the 'husband' rate slightly more than the 'wife' - but that the rates are not markedly different (and, thankfully, both seem recently to have fallen).
It is, I agree, not absolute proof. But it is surely an indication of a trend.
4 June 2009