September 29, 2011

Violence is a major contributor to premature death, injury, and disability both in the United States and throughout the world. Each day throughout the world, an average of 4,400 people die from violent acts, for a total of 1.6 million deaths each year. Since many violent deaths are unreported, this estimate is an undercount. Many more people survive acts of violence, and they and their families must often deal with long-term consequences such as disabilities and psychological trauma.

Violence is generally classified into four categories: interpersonal violence, self-harm (such as suicide and suicide attempts), legal intervention (such as capital punishment), and war. This section will focus on interpersonal violence.

Homicide is the most severe act of interpersonal violence. Worldwide, homicide is the 17th leading cause of death. In the United States, homicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 1 through 34. Homicide rates rose dramatically in the United States between the 1970s and 1993, but then decreased to rates similar to those seen in the late 1960s. While increases in homicide rates are attributed in part to increases in related crime, urban poverty, and inner-city strife, as well as more accurate reporting of cause of death, recent decreases in homicide rates are attributed to the growing economy, community-based prevention programs, increased and more effective law enforcement activities, and anticrime legislation. The observed decreases are likely due in part to combinations of all of these as well as other undocumented factors.

In the United States, nonfatal violent victimizations are measured nationally through the National Crime Victimization Survey. This survey includes rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault victimizations among those over 12 years of age. In 2000, approximately 6.6 million violent victimizations occurred, or about 29.1 per 1,000 persons over age 12. This is the lowest level of violent victimizations since the survey began in 1973.

Men are more likely than women to be victims of violent crime. In 2000, men experienced 42% more violent crimes, 125% more robberies, and 159% more assaults than women. The only exception is for rape and sexual assault victimizations, in which women are the more likely victims.

Violent crimes against women are more likely than those against men to be perpetrated by someone they know. In over 65% of violent victimizations reported by women, they identified a nonstranger as the perpetrator. This compares to only 44% of victimizations reported by men. A higher percentage of women (21%) than men (3%) reported being victimized by an intimate partner. Over 60% of rapes and sexual assaults were committed by someone known to the woman, including intimate partners (18%), friends/acquaintances (42%), or other relatives (2%).

Men are also more likely than women to perpetrate violent crimes. Each year, women commit approximately 2 million violent offenses, or about 14% of all violent crimes. Three out of four violent crimes committed by women were simple assaults, and about 75% of their victims were also women. Women comprise 22% of all arrestees, 16% of convicted felons, and 16% of the correctional facility population.

Over the last decade, there has been a growing concern about violence perpetrated by adolescents. Surveys have identified that between 30% and 40% of adolescent males and 15-30% of adolescent females have perpetrated a violent crime by the age of 17. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 1997 that persons aged 12-24 comprised 22% of the total population, 35% of murder victims, and 49% of serious violent crime victims. Differences in violent crime perpetration and victimization between men and women are most marked among the younger age groups.

Violence is preventable. Although many believe violent acts to be random events, they actually occur in predictable patterns. Identification of these patterns has led to an understanding that violence is predicated by a complicated interplay between individual, community, and societal characteristics. Violence can be prevented or reduced through actions that modify the characteristics that predicate violence.

At the individual level, factors such as poor communication skills, past violent victimization or witnessing violent acts, low levels of education, and unemployment can lead to violent victimization and perpetration. Violence is also consistently linked with a lifestyle that includes alcohol and drug use, guns, precocious sexual activity, and nonviolent criminal behavior. However, individual predictors of violent behavior usually have a weak effect, and the ability to predict whether specific individuals are likely to become violent is extremely poor. Most individuals who exhibit predisposing factors for violence, such as being a victim of child abuse, do not become violent. Knowledge of individual risk factors is, however, crucial to identify populations at high risk and to design effective intervention programs.

Community factors include poverty, high unemployment, lack of development of the built environment (e.g., dilapidated neighborhoods), and lack of community cohesion. Isolation or segregation of some subpopulations and tolerance for violence are examples of societal factors. Interventions that focus on changing these environmental components can be highly effective because they have the potential to reach a larger number of people. These programs, however, should be implemented in conjunction with programs that address high-risk populations of individuals.

Knowledge about the prevention of violence is rich but fragmented across a number of professional disciplines. A sufficient body of research has not yet been developed that can determine which of the many components of violence are most successfully modifiable, and most programs have not been adequately evaluated. However, most programs that have been highly effective combine interventions that address both individual and multiple components of the environment.

Research into perpetration of violent crimes has revealed two primary categories of violent offenders: those who initiate violent behavior after puberty and those who do so before puberty. Early onset of violent behavior is a very strong predictor of repeated or lifelong violent behavior. Developmental research has identified that early childhood experiences strongly influence the trajectory of brain development, further supporting a strong link between early childhood experiences and later behavior. Developmental research has also found that as a whole, aggressive children and children with behavioral disorders are not more likely to become offenders of violent crimes. In combination, this research implies that direct or indirect violence victimization as a child is a stronger predictor of future violent behavior than a child’s personality tendencies.

Based on this research, it is not surprising that prevention programs that focus on early childhood development have proven the most effective. One large review of federally funded violence prevention programs found that early childhood home visitation programs that focus on parenting skills and safe environments were the most effective at preventing the onset of violent behavior. Programs that focus on building communication and problem-solving skills have also shown positive effects, both for children and adults. However, investment in such programs is the most cost-beneficial when implemented among children and adolescents who live in urban, high-poverty neighborhoods, where the murder rate is often 20 times the national rate.

Knowledge about the causal pathway of violent behavior and how to intervene and prevent such behavior is growing and improving. An evidence-based approach to prevention that encourages collaboration between different agencies and professional backgrounds will contribute to ongoing efforts to reduce violence.

See Also: Disability, Domestic violence, Mortality, Sexual abuse

Suggested Reading

  • Sherman, L. W., Gottfredson, D., MacKenzie, D., Eck, J., Reuter, P., & Bushway, S. (1997). Preventing crime: What works, what doesn’t, what’s promising [NCJ 165366]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
  • United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2001). Youth violence: A report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: author.
  • United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2001). Criminal victimization 2000: Changes 1999-2000 with trends 1993-2000. Washington, D.C.: author.
  • World Health Organization. (2002). World report on violence and health. Geneva: author.

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