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.