COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Being charged with murder is increasingly common among Columbus youth.

Data obtained from the Columbus Division of Police indicates that 10 children younger than 18 have been suspected of murder in the first six-and-a-half months of 2022, meaning it’s poised to well surpass the 11 youth homicide suspects for 2021.

It’s an alarming trend for Thell Robinson III, founder and CEO of the Columbus-based nonprofit Halt Violence, whose organization deploys street mentors to mediate disputes, or “squash the beef,” between kids in high-crime areas. The single pull of a trigger, he said, could define the rest of a child’s life.

“When you think about 15-year-olds and 14-year-olds, those are supposed to be innocent years to work, to go to school, watch movies, video games,” Robinson said. “But nothing should be about life and death in their daily lives.”

Juvenile suspects account for 14% of 2022's homicides

Of the 204 homicide investigations in 2021, just under 5% of suspects were younger than 18. As of Friday, Columbus police have reported that of the 77 homicides in 2022, the 11 juvenile suspects account for about 14%.

The upward trend in youth homicide suspects mirrors the overall rise in homicides in Columbus over the past two years, according to data from the Columbus Division of Police. From 2018 to 2021, police recorded a 71% increase in homicides, from 119 to 204.

"The last two years have been more deadly than Columbus has ever seen previously in its history," Robinson said.

Catching COVID-19 and a homicide charge

Correlation does not equal causation, but Bernita Reese, director of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, said problems posed by the coronavirus pandemic bruised the support systems in place for Columbus youth -- and consequently the propensity for kids to stray toward violence.

"The challenges that all of us face during the pandemic -- and that is being inside our homes, the social environment being taken away -- those are some of the units that we look at," Reese said.

Black youth, who account for eight of the 10 juvenile homicide suspects in 2022, according to a review of Columbus Division of Police reports, were disproportionately impacted by the sting of COVID-19, whether that be limited access to the internet or family members dying of the virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, Black Americans are nearly two times as likely to die of and be hospitalized with COVID-19. And the Pew Research Center found that Black households in the U.S. are less likely to own a computer or have access to high-speed broadband.

"When it comes to the Black community, they don't have the resources like the suburban neighborhoods," Robinson said. "Like when during COVID, like the internet access to where's the schoolwork being done -- some parents had to work and the kids were left there to fend for themselves."

Combating crime is a city-wide effort

Along with more than $16 million in funding toward youth violence prevention from the Columbus City Council, Reese said the Department of Recreation and Parks hosts a number of programs aimed at stopping juvenile crime before it happens.

The department deploys intervention specialists in high-crime areas to work directly with Columbus youth, providing everything from academic to anger management support and assistance with court cases to crisis intervention, she said.

"I tell you, they are out every day within the community, throughout the community, making sure that we are intervening prior to the violence and trying to stop as much violence as we can," she said.

More than 140 youth participated this summer in the department's job readiness program -- APPS, or Applying Purpose and Passion to Service -- which aims to get kids employed in the community and prepare them for future careers, Reese said.

A 16-year-old who catches a homicide charge in Columbus could very well "throw his life away," Robinson said. He encouraged Columbus youth to connect with adults they can relate to "so that you won't fall into that trap of being six feet under or going to prison yourself."

"When an individual can get away from all of that noise and find out that opportunity is out there, life becomes beautiful, life becomes joyous," he said, "but you know, being around that negativity of that cycle of violence, that is not life."

The Columbus Division of Police did not respond to requests for an interview by the time of publication.