Timothy Brezina is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University. He has published numerous studies on the causes and correlates of youth violence and delinquency. This post summarizes his latest research study, titled “Might Not Be a Tomorrow: Anticipated Early Death and Youth Crime”, co-authored with Volkan Topalli and Erdal Tekin, and forthcoming in the journal Criminology.
“I saw my first dead body when I was five, man. It was my uncle. Some crackhead stabbed him straight in the eye. Blood all over,” recalled a young offender of his earliest childhood memories.
Many people would have difficulty comprehending the pervasive violence that young people confront in our nation’s economically-deprived, inner-city communities. A survey of school children in inner-city Chicago revealed that nearly one-quarter had witnessed someone being killed. In a similar survey of public high school students in inner-city Cleveland, one-third reported that they had been shot or shot at.
How do these experiences with violence affect the social, emotional, and educational development of young people? What does it mean to witness killings at an early age and to attend the funerals of other young people? What impact does it have on their sense of a future, and on their willingness to engage in risky behavior, including crime?
To gain answers to these questions, I teamed up with key research colleagues at Georgia State University, including Drs. Volkan Topalli and Erdal Tekin. A portion of our research involved in-depth interviews with “hardcore” offenders from the streets of Atlanta. We wanted to learn, as best we could, how the world looks through their eyes, and how their perceptions and beliefs affect their decisions to pursue crime. For the purposes of our research, we regarded our offender interviewees—drug dealers, robbers, and carjackers—as the “experts” on criminal decision-making.
Our interviewees typically reported long and early histories of violence. Many had been shot or stabbed and bore visible scars of physical trauma. They also expressed what criminologists refer to as a “coercive” worldview; in their eyes, they occupy a dog-eat-dog world where it is acceptable if not necessary to use force to intimidate others and to prevent victimization.
In the words of one offender: “In my neighborhood, it’s rob or be robbed. I prefer to be on the robbing end.” He explained to us how he had learned to rob people effectively (e.g., how to immobilize victims and catch them off guard) from the experience of being robbed himself.
However, we also learned that such cold-hearted attitudes could be traced, more fundamentally, to a profound loss of faith in the future. Not only do these offenders occupy a violent world, but in their eyes it is also a chaotic and unpredictable world, where one’s time could be very short. As one of our interviewees described:
I grew up with shootin’ and fightin’ all over… Where I’m from you never know if you gonna live one minute to the next… People die every day.
For these young men, a sense of “futurelessness” breeds a lack of concern for the consequences of their actions. Deferring immediate gratification makes little sense without a stable future to look forward to. “Might be dead by 25, so who cares?,” explained one young offender. In fact, our interviewees expressed a pressing need to “get it fast” and to “get it now,” by whatever means necessary.
At worst, the prospect of an early death fosters a basic disregard for human life: “So, [why] am I gonna care for anybody? I’m not. I’m gonna get mine, and if I have to kill your ass to do it, so what?”
It is not difficult to see how these attitudes could lead to a tragic, self-fulfilling prophecy. A lack of faith in the future promotes dangerous and risky behavior, including crime and violence. Yet participation in crime only increases the odds that one will meet an untimely death.
Finally, analyzing national survey data, we were able to confirm a statistical relationship between anticipated early death and youth crime, even after controlling for a host of other factors.
I believe these findings have implications for public policy. It seems unlikely that threats of harsher criminal justice penalties will deter these fearless offenders. They assume life is short anyway and willingly accept the risks associated with a criminal lifestyle—even death. In effect, they are “beyond” deterrence.
An alternative approach is to confront the pervasive violence and other social ills that so many inner-city children confront in their daily lives—conditions that deflate hope and breed crime in the first place. Although “media violence” has attracted much attention in the national debate over youth violence, the violence these children contend with is all too real—its effects even more damaging.
Although criminologists have identified a number of promising violence-prevention efforts, I do not claim that a “deal-with-the-root-causes” approach would be easy, politically or otherwise. But forgoing an all-out effort to keep our nation’s children free from the daily terror of violence, we neglect those most in need and increase the danger to all of us.