Pathways to Early Violent Death

The Voices of Serious Violent Youth Offenders

Joseph B. Richardson Jr, PhD; Jerry Brown, EdD; Michelle Van Brakle, PhD


Am J Public Health. 2013;103(7):E5-E16. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Quantitative studies have uncovered factors associated with early violent death among youth offenders detained in the juvenile justice system, but little is known about the contextual factors associated with pathways to early violent death among youths detained in adult jails.
We interviewed young Black male serious violent youth offenders detained in an adult jail to understand their experience of violence. Their narratives reveal how the code of the street, informal rules that govern interpersonal violence among poor inner-city Black male youths, increases the likelihood of violent victimization.
Youth offenders detained in adult jails have the lowest rate of service provision among all jail populations. We have addressed how services for youth offenders can be improved to reduce the pathways to early violent death.


"I carry my gun anywhere I go, I mean if I got to crush [kill or injure] someone, then I will. I don't care. It's either him or me."
Ice, aged 17 years

On any given day in the United States 7600 youths younger than 18 years are detained in adult jails.[1,2] Youths of color are overrepresented among this group.[3] Although they represent only17% of the total youth population, 62% of youths prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system are Black, and they are 9 times more likely than are White youths to receive an adult prison sentence.[4] Serious minority male offenders are more likely to be transferred to adult court and confined to more restrictive settings.[5] Research on serious violent youth offenders who were adjudicated in an adult criminal court suggests that they are at greater risk for violent injury and early violent death than are youths processed in juvenile court.[6–11] Youths placed in adult jails and prisons are also at greater risk to be sexually and physically assaulted. They are the easiest prey for violent victimization and sexual abuse and so are the hardest hit,[12,13] and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are approximately 34% more likely than are youths adjudicated in the juvenile justice system to be rearrested for a violent crime.[14]

Although studies have documented early violent death among youth offenders detained in adult jail,[6] a critical omission in this research is contextual information on why the rate of violence and homicide is so high among this population.[6,10,11,15–18] Their "voices" are missing.[18] Although there is a wealth of quantitative data on risk factors for early violent death among youth offenders,[6] we know little about the meaning of violence in their lives and how violence shapes their social worlds. We have addressed this gap in the literature.

To explore pathways to early violent death among serious violent youth offenders, we drew on the narratives of Black male adolescents transferred to adult court. We explored how these youth offenders negotiated the social context of inner-city violence while they were on the "outside." We asked questions regarding "disrespect" as well as the following questions: Did they carry firearms? In what situations would they use a firearm? What role does violence play in their lives? How do drugs, alcohol, and violence fit into the social context of their lives and the communities where they reside? Were they chronically exposed to violence? Have they ever been violently victimized? How do they negotiate violence in the context of jail?