‘Dead by 25, So Who Cares?’ Anticipated Early Death and Youth Crime

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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 intervieweesdrug dealers, robbers, and carjackersas 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.

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Rethinking the Role of Gangs

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John Hagedorn is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His most recent book is A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture.

We read every day about the arrest of gang members or statements by police that some bust “crippled” the local gang.  Zero tolerance policies in schools and communities have as a goal the complete elimination of gangs.  In several Central American countries, a policy of “mano dura” or the iron fist, aims to smash gangs.

But despite these policies, filled jails, and one police campaign after another, gangs haven’t gone away. In fact, a quick glance at press reports from around the world finds gangs everywhere. What’s up with this? Do the failure of “hard line” policies mean that we should ignore gangs or treat them nicely and they will go away? What should we do?

Here’s what I think: Gangs aren’t going away no matter what we do. In other words, no matter if we crack down or lighten up, gangs are with us to stay. Let’s examine first why I’d say something outrageous like this and then think about what it means for what we should do.

There are six billion people in the world today and half are under the age of 24. More than a billion are between 18-24, prime gang age. In a world that has 1.2 billion people living on less than a dollar a day, the UN’s standard for extreme poverty, there are a lot of poor, and understandably angry, young people. The sad truth is the 21st century is not so much a century of hope but one of shattered dreams. It’s not that individually, you or your friend can’t make it — hard work, determination, and getting a few breaks can give even the most “down and outs” a way up and out. But looking at the big picture, for the one billion plus people living in extreme poverty, the good life will remain out of reach for this lifetime, at least.

That’s really where gangs come in. Gangs are destructive and violent, alienated and armed young men and sometimes women. But they are also rebels in the face of a world that is even more violent, unforgiving, and cold.  Unfortunately the response gangs most often choose is one that only makes things worse.

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Instilling Hope with After-School Programs

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LaVerne DaCosta is a Ph.D. student and faculty associate, teaching education and society courses at Arizona State University.  Her Master of Science research focused on youth services.  Her current research interest is in youth culture and technology.


From my brief profile above, I am sure you already know where my passion lies.  I believe in the creative potential of young people, and I believe strongly in the value of after-school programs as a resource to help foster and sustain that potential. 


The research on after-school recreation programs, which includes my own Master of Science research, has shown that after-school programs can be beneficial to students, particularly children from underserved communities and/or adolescents who are trying to form their individual identity and are particularly vulnerable to structural or environmental factors that leave them exposed to risk.  Such students tend to act out their aggressions, mistrust and hopelessness in a myriad of counter-productive ways. 


The public school classroom is the one place that such students seldom get the help they need.  The structure of schools and classroom discipline only serve to exacerbate the problem.  Regular participation by young people in after-school recreation programs, however, can have an impact on reducing their negative behaviors.


Additionally, the numerous literature indicate that because the factors that affect young people’s behaviors are inter-related, after-school recreation programs which help to reduce negative behavior, juvenile delinquency, and violent crime also help to build self-esteem, ego-resiliency and ultimately impact their academic achievement.  After-school recreation programs can help maltreated children and transitional foster-care children cope with a variety of issues in their lives and contribute to goals such as self-efficacy and positive development.  Practice is the key to building confidence and these programs provide this space through enrichment curriculum with the exclusion of any grand theory of success and failure.


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Starting and Maintaining a CLTL Juvenile Program: An Interview with Michael Habib

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Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog: allanmcdougall.wordpress.com.

Combined with the biological awkwardness of growing up, young offenders are often under added pressure at home, at school, and in their peer groups. I can say this because I’m a volunteer with young offenders here in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Furthermore, I greatly admire facilitators who run juvenile community programs.


For these reasons and others, I listened carefully to the words of Fall River’s juvenile program facilitator, Michael Habib, at the last two annual conferences. When a call for blog posts went out, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to interview Mike and get answers to some key questions that I could use in my own volunteer work: What tips do you have for other juvenile reading programs? How do you get kids to open up? What do you do when they don’t do their assigned work?


One of the first things Mike, a lawyer, will tell you about himself is he’s never been a big reader of fiction. “I read more non-fiction and history, but I’ve always enjoyed discussing books with my colleagues and I’ve always given books to kids because I believe in the power of literature. When I was a young lawyer, I was representing this kid who was charged with robbery. I didn’t believe his story, but it turned out he was telling the truth in the end. Well he got in trouble again and said, ‘okay, I did it. What are you going to do for me now?’  I worked out a deal for him so the charges were dismissed, but he had to attend a youth program. I also gave him Ellison’s The Invisible Man. A while later, he sent me a letter asking for recommendations on other black writers. That was the first kid I ever gave a book to.”


Mike’s reputation for giving books to juvenile offenders became well known in Fall River, and when one of his colleagues became a judge, he asked Mike to facilitate the court’s first CLTL program.“Not being an English professor, I had to do a lot of research on what kids read. I used the CLTL homepage as a resource, consulted with librarians, audited a session at the New Bedford program, and found a great website called www.theliterarylink.com, which I highly recommend.”


In Mike’s experience, a CLTL program for kids needs to run differently than a program for adults. “The stories have to pick the kids,” says Mike. “These kids don’t trust you and they don’t know who you are. Part of the facilitator’s task is listening to them and building relationships. Kids don’t respond well to classic literature. Contemporary works will be more engaging for them.”


“Before each class, I prepare a list of discussion questions and for the first hour we talk about the assigned reading,” he continues. “After a break, we spend the second hour reading aloud from where the previous week’s assigned reading ended. We keep on reading until the end of class, while pausing to periodically discuss questions. At the end, I assign the reading assignment for the following week, which is generally about 20 pages long. 20 pages doesn’t seem like much, but these kids have school, homework, and often problems at home—they don’t all read like average students. So a novel generally lasts 5 weeks.”


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Making a Difference

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Kelly DeSouza is an English teacher and mentor at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School. She is the mother of two beautiful children and lives in Lakeville, MA.


I have had many positive experiences with facilitating Changing Lives Through Literature groups in the juvenile drug court. These experiences are all the direct result of listening and connecting with the adolescents in the group; in doing this, I have not only listened but heard the students express what is important to them.


Enter sixteen-year-old Amelia. This past CLTL group was her third time participating and it was completely voluntary. She was an active participant and missed only one class, because she was moving back home. Amelia said, on more than one occasion, “We need more programs like this. It really helps.” Her sincerity is reflected in her not being required to attend the class; nevertheless she was a faithful participant.


Erin is another sixteen-year-old girl who also thought we needed more programs. She enjoyed the book we read, The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin. The book was about an unfit mother and her three children. As part of our writing assignment, the class wrote letters to their moms expressing everything that they are thankful for. Erin is fluent in American Sign Language and had always been uncomfortable publicly signing to her mother. At our CLTL graduation ceremony, Erin signed the thank you letter she had written to her mom as it was being read.


Yolanda is a thirteen-year-old who absolutely loved our class. She was always getting into trouble at school, but always shined in our classes. Yolanda often said she wished English at school was like this. Unfortunately, Yolanda was locked up before our graduation; the first thing she did was call a lawyer to ask if she could be placed in the next class when she is released.  Stella Ribeiro (probation officer) and I are looking forward to her return.


The teens that we work with have multi-faceted problems: drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, poor home lives, gang involvement, peer pressure, and many other issues present in today’s society. For three hours, every week, the students are able to liberate themselves from the challenges of their world; how do they escape? Many would not believe the answer–literature.         


I don’t think the students like the class because of the books we read, but rather what the books provide. We read, journal, and discuss; this is the key to getting through to the participants. The characters from the pages suddenly become real people that we can analyze and learn from. We have had many healthy debates, learned from the students, and they from us. The classes offer a safe environment because we are all there for the same reason. Students aren’t graded, judged, or tested but are appreciated. The focus is on them, their insight into the literature, and how situations are applicable in today’s world. It is a safe way to discuss options and choices with only hypothetical consequences.


I had a wise professor who used to speak of “the journey” as being more important than the end. The Changing Lives Through Literature class is an important journey for our youth; it is the catalyst that will transport them from where they have been to somewhere they didn’t think was possible, or know exists.

Juvenile vs. Adult Corrections: How Do They Stack Up?



Radek M. Gadek is a graduate of the Boston University’s Master in Criminal Justice program. He is the founder of Criminal Justice Online, an interactive blog dedicated to criminal justice academia and law enforcement careers.

Since its inception, the correctional system in the U.S. aimed to keep crime out of the streets. There are notable differences, however, when it comes to the way juveniles and adults are ultimately being helped while within the “system.”  One must consider the age of an adult person in the United States is eighteen, and often, this is where the line gets drawn between being convicted of a crime as a juvenile and as an adult. 


As long as a juvenile is being tried in a juvenile court and is convicted of a crime there, they will not enter the adult facilities until they turn the legal age of adulthood (exceptions apply). This makes a huge difference when it comes to rehabilitation, suppression of future crimes, and length of sentence.


It’s widely known that each correction system uses incarceration to punish offenders. However, rehabilitation is often the key concept of juvenile corrections, and not adult corrections.  There are more incentive programs offered for adolescent criminals.  For example, American Youth Prevention Forum states that


Services found to be effective in juvenile justice include: smaller, 15-25 bed, programs that reduce violent incidents; low staff/student ratios that lead to higher academic achievement; five hours of academic instruction per day (usually required by law); cognitive restructuring programs that, among other things, help young people understand thinking errors which get them into trouble; and gradual returns to the community from secure facilities through day treatment which reduces recidivism, results in higher levels of academic achievement and provides more connections to employers.


This kind of care is not fully available in the adult correctional system-it focuses stringently on punishment and offers only a handful of rehabilitation initiatives when compared to its juvenile counterpart.  It’s a shame. Even though many first time offenders commit crimes before their 21st birthday, society contends such services would not work well with adult prisoners and would be a waste of taxpayer money at the benefit of “hardened” criminals.


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Turning Lives Around: Boys in Trouble and How They Age

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John H. Laub is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, College Park and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. Dr. Laub’s areas of research include crime and deviance over the life course, juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice, and the history of criminology. He is the co-author of  Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life and Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70.



“Both science and autobiography affirm that a capacity for change is as essential to human development as it is to the evolution of new species.  The events of the opening years do start an infant down a particular path, but it is a path with an extraordinarily large number of intersections.”  
Jerome Kagan, 1998


“The events that go wrong in our lives do not forever damn us.” 
George and Caroline Vaillant, 1981

These two quotes have inspired my long-term research project seeking to understand the development and pathways of offending over the life course.  With my colleague and best friend, Rob Sampson, I have spent much of the last twenty plus years working on two books and dozens of articles, all of which cohere around the goal of accounting for patterns of criminal offending and other behavioral domains over the life course of high-risk children.  One of our key questions is what explains behavioral change over the life course? 


There are many parallels between our program of research and the Changing Lives Through Literature Program.  The CLTL program uses literature to provide insight into the human condition and in turn helps offenders to make sense of their own lives.   CLTL offers the possibility of redemption to marginalized and damaged men and women.  Our research also challenges conventional wisdom regarding offenders and, like the CLTL program, offers an important and hopeful message about the possibility of change, no matter how bleak the prospects may appear.



Our journey began in 1986, when I stumbled across the dusty archives of a classic but largely forgotten study of delinquency housed in the basement of the Harvard Law School.  The study was the Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency project and subsequent follow-ups conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck of the Harvard Law School.  This is considered to be one of the most influential studies in the history of criminological research. 


The results of our “first round” efforts can be found in Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life (Harvard University Press, 1993).  In this book we developed an age-graded theory of informal social control to explain childhood antisocial behavior, adolescent delinquency, and crime in early adulthood.  A fundamental thesis of our theory of crime was that while individual traits and childhood experiences are important for understanding behavioral stability, experiences in adolescence and adulthood can redirect criminal trajectories in either a more positive or more negative manner.  More precisely, we found that job stability and marital attachment in adulthood were significantly related to changes in adult crime—the stronger the adult ties to work and family, the less crime and deviance among both delinquents and nondelinquent controls.  We concluded that adult “turning points” were crucial for understanding processes of change.


Although proud of Crime in the Making, after its publication we began to contemplate its limitations and raise new questions.  To our fascination and simultaneous horror, we were drawn to embark on a second journey— this time to get out of the basement and into the street and conduct a follow-up study of the Glueck men to the present. 


The results of our “second round” efforts can be found in Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70 (Harvard University Press, 2003).  By merging our follow-up data with original data from the Gluecks’ study we have in our hands the only criminological study in the world that contains data from birth and early childhood to age 70 for such a large group of serious, persistent juvenile offenders.  These data can address many issues concerning crime and criminal justice, but of particular interest to us is continuity and change in criminal behavior over the life course.



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Links: Juvenile Justice and the Printed Page

Looking for Wednesday’s essay? Click here to jump to Anna Wulick’s account of her love affair with literature, “Bonding with Books.”



Is Incarceration Always the Answer? 

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Over at Carolannunemployed, the author discusses the options communities have in treating juvenile offenders: 

Juvenile detention should not be a communities only correctional alternative. Correctional options should exist that serve  to guide children, and help them learn to make better choices by providing them with counseling, and a better future by provide the juvenile with education, correction, and job search assistance. The focus of juvenile justice should be to provide children who commit crimes with a future as a productive member of society.



Resisting the Kindle

AtlanticSven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age tells The Atlantic what we lose when moving from print to electronic texts. The folks over at Conversational Reading weigh in on the debate.

Why, then, am I so uneasy about the page-to-screen transfer—a skeptic if not a downright resister? Perhaps it is because I see in the turning of literal pages—pages bound in literal books—a compelling larger value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that we are replacing, never mind improving upon. I’m not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it—the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.



 Also check out : 

The Kenyon Review‘s Kirsten Ogden: “The Rise of Reading (or, the art of finding a quiet nook)” 

The New York Times’ Kareem Fahim: “Seeking to Intervene With Young Adults Before Crime Becomes a Way of Life.”

The Chronicle Review‘s Mark Bauerlein:  “On the Value of Cheap Old Paperbacks”


Read anything interesting lately? Share your links with us in the comments section below.

Shakespeare’s Words Resonate with Juvenile Offenders

by Ron Jenkins

shakespeare“He’s a thug,” said the boy’s teacher, nodding toward a lanky teenager who had just finished performing a 17th-century monologue from The Tempest. “I never thought he would take this Shakespeare stuff so seriously.” She marveled at the improvement in the young man’s speaking skills since he had begun wrestling with Elizabethan prose.

The teacher cared deeply for him and the other students in the Walter G. Cady School at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, but she put their progress in perspective when he and his classmates left the room. “We have to be honest and admit that a lot of these kids will spend the rest of their lives in jail, and some of them will die young.”

That stark prognosis silenced the 12 other young people who remained in the room when the Cady school students were gone. This more fortunate group consisted of students from Wesleyan University who had signed up to spend a semester with me teaching Shakespeare to incarcerated teenagers at the state correctional facility near the campus in Middletown.

They were prepared to explain the meaning of the Bard’s words to the Cady School students, and they did that job admirably, but they didn’t expect their incarcerated students to teach them more about the inner lives of Shakespeare’s characters than could ever be learned in a university classroom.


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CLTL Juvenile Programs: What They’re Up Against

by Tam Lin Neville


A few years ago I visited a Changing Lives Through Literature Juvenile class in New Bedford, Massachusetts.   The kids were only 14 – 16 years old but when PO Stella Rebiero asked how many in the class had lost someone to violence, every hand went up.  In other programs, I found a similar history of violence, with students wearing “R.I.P.” T-shirts bearing dates that told the story of a young person whose life was cut short prematurely.  In the women’s class that I teach, composed mainly of African-American single mothers, many talked of the necessity of keeping up funeral insurance for their sons.

With the help of Yale Magrass’ post on Dec.6th, “All Quiet on the Prison Front,” I want to look at the implications of the wounds these adolescents carry as they pertain to our program.  Magrass says that there is an inherent contradiction in rehab programs, especially where men and boys are concerned. Ostensibly, the purpose of rehab is to help a client adjust to our society and return to it as an active, productive member.  But Magrass asks a question that is seldom raised:  “Is this a society to which we should adjust?” 

He doesn’t think so:

A militarist state must raise boys, ready and able to commit violence, ideally enthusiastically, providing it is directed against peoples whom their rulers deem enemies….Rulers, who need cannon fodder, do not want an education system that makes all students independent creative thinkers….The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools turn over their student rosters to military recruiters.  A school is deemed successful if it sends its products to the army as well as to college. 

In our classrooms and discussion groups, we, as CLTL judges, facilitators, and POs, work to build a society that counteracts this culture of violence.  Is such a world possible? 

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