Witnessing Violence When You're A Child Can Have A Lifelong Impact, Study Finds09:47
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In this Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016 photo, a courtyard is surrounded by barbed wire at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections High Security Center, in Cranston, R.I. (Steven Senne/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016 photo, a courtyard is surrounded by barbed wire at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections High Security Center, in Cranston, R.I. (Steven Senne/AP)

The Boston Reentry Study looks at whether witnessing deadly violence as a child can have a lifelong impact, tracking 122 men and women released from prison in Massachusetts between 2012 and 2014 to see how they're adjusting to life outside.

Researchers found that 42 percent of people they spoke to had seen someone killed during their childhood.

Here & Now's Robin Young talks with Bruce Western (@WesternBruce), one of the researchers involved with the study. He's a professor of criminal justice and sociology at Harvard University and co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, and author of "Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison."

"It was really striking," Western says of the results. "I think it was a measure of the exposure to trauma and violence in the lives of people that go to prison. It tells us that people who go to prison have often lived with violence around them for a lifetime in different ways."

Interview Highlights

On the impact of violence on child development

"Growing up in violent environments has all sorts of negative effects on child development. There's a finding that in the week of a homicide in your neighborhood if kids are doing a test that week, they'll tend to test worse. We found in our data in adulthood people who had serious exposure to violence in childhood really struggled with physical and mental health problems."

On how common it was for prisoners to have witnessed someone being killed

"We heard a lot about violence in people's lives. We spoke to our study respondents over a period of a year, so we got to know them quite well. And this one data point of witnessing a killing, this is just one measure of all the different trauma in people's lives."

On what people told him when he asked if they had seen someone killed as a child

"When I began the research, this was not on my radar at all. And we conceived of the study largely as a poverty study, and we wanted to know how people were finding employment, how they were going with their housing, their health care and so on after incarceration. But as we got to know people, they opened up to us. Around about the six-month interview, we thought, 'Man, we're hearing about so much trauma and the lives of our respondents, we need to be asking about this in a systematic way.' And so we developed a new module that tried to measure all the different kinds of trauma and adversity people might have encountered in childhood.

"People were already talking to us about a range of sensitive topics. And sometimes they would say, 'Many times, many times I saw that as a kid.' And I have to say they weren't all homicides. They had witnessed also accidents and suicides, as well as homicides."

"People in poor communities face all sorts of adversity and not everyone goes to prison. There's certainly a strong relationship, I think, between exposure to violence and trauma in childhood and incarceration."

Bruce Western

On the statistic that 42 percent of prisoners witnessed someone being killed

"That's an underestimate of the exposure to violence.

"I wouldn't want to draw a causal connection between that exposure to trauma, and ultimately going to prison in adulthood. I think one thing it tells us is that when people come out of prison, they have a lot of trauma in many cases that is largely unaddressed by the kinds of resources and supports that are available to them. ... People in poor communities face all sorts of adversity and not everyone goes to prison. There's certainly a strong relationship, I think, between exposure to violence and trauma in childhood and incarceration. But ... the relationship [is] not airtight."

On if childhood trauma should factor into sentencing

"I think there are two implications. One is in our sentencing system, we divide the world between victims and offenders, and we draw a bright line there. And everyone we spoke to had some sort of exposure to violence in their lives. And so understanding that victims and offenders are often one and the same person, I think, should lead us to leniency and mercy in our sentencing scheme. There's a lot more moral complexity out there than our criminal justice system allows. The other implication is that for our re-entry policy, I think we need to make available resources for mental health care of people who have been exposed to trauma."

"Understanding that victims and offenders are often one and the same person, I think, should lead us to leniency and mercy in our sentencing scheme. There's a lot more moral complexity out there than our criminal justice system allows."

Bruce Western

On mercy and the criminal justice system

"Our affluent, middle-class kids also get in trouble, also use drugs, destroy property, get in fights and come into conflict with the law, just as poor kids do. But we have an entire system of support for our middle-class kids that [represents] a very significant alternative to the criminal justice system. And often the justice system, when it does come into play, looks to the future, looks to the potential of that middle class kid and shows mercy and leniency. And I think if we took a similar view to poor kids — of their potential, of all of their human capacities — that's a way of finding more leniency in the system and ultimately, I think, a way out of the problem of mass incarceration."

On how the criminal justice system doesn't consider social context 

"The criminal justice system struggles with this a lot. The system has to be one of accountability and has to accord people their moral agency. And I think taking account of one's past allows us to treat that moral agency with a level of compassion. And I think that's really the main implication of a finding like this.

"I think if we're thinking about how should we respond to the problem of violence in a very disadvantaged communities, punishment offers only a very limited kind of response. Ultimately, I think we find justice in the abatement of social context, which themselves are very violent."

This segment aired on June 1, 2018.

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