Have You Ever Seen Someone Be Killed?

A county jail in Tennessee. A question on a study following newly released prisoners in Massachusetts revealed that being a witness to deadly violence as a child was surprisingly common among the study participants.

Researchers with the Boston Reentry Study were one year into their interviews, following 122 men and women as they returned from prison to their neighborhoods and families, when they asked the kind of question that’s hard to broach until you know someone well.

They prompted the study’s participants to think back to childhood. “Did you ever see someone get killed during that time?”

Childhood violence, including deadly violence, kept coming up in the previous conversations. The references suggested a level of childhood trauma among people leaving prison that standard survey questions don’t capture. And so the researchers wanted to be methodical — to ask everyone, directly, just like this.

The answers, among hundreds of other questions the study explored, give insight into the life trajectories that precede prison, and the limitations of the criminal justice system that places people there. In total, 42 percent of the study’s participants said “yes.”

That shocked even the investigators.

“I’ve never seen anyone be killed; I’m 54 years old, and I think I will probably not see that in my life,” said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist who describes the study in the new book “Homeward.” “And it was incredibly common in the lives of the respondents we talked to.”

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Credit...David Goldman/Associated Press

Among these children — many who would later commit violence themselves, enter prison and struggle to re-enter society — some witnessed a killing more than once. So the statistic is an understatement, Mr. Western said.

Across their entire lives, the people in the study variously acted as offender, victim, participant and witness to violence, sometimes multiple roles at a time. That reality is messier than the one the criminal justice system recognizes.

“There is an unstated assumption deep in the DNA of criminal justice jurisprudence that the world divides into two categories, and there are victims and offenders,” Mr. Western said. “And the system delivers a certain kind of accountability by punishing offenders on behalf of victims.”

That clear line disappears, though, in the life histories of these former prisoners. Most of them were raised in poverty, in chaotic environments where routines and adult supervision were rare, and where their families were under stress.

Violence was common, not because poor people are more prone to it, but because poverty shapes social interaction in a way that makes violence more likely, research suggests. Anyone dropped into the same environment,Mr. Western said, could be swept up by violence, too.

Studies show that children who experience trauma are more likely later in life to suffer from asthma, depression, unemployment, and they’re also more likely to use drugs. The more trauma a child faces, the higher these odds. Children perform less well on standardized tests right after violent crimes have occurred in their neighborhood — even if they didn’t personally witness the violence.

The typical measures of trauma — “adverse childhood experiences” that include growing up in a household with physical or substance abuse — don’t gauge anything quite like witnessing lethal violence. That distress alters the picture of the population the Boston Reentry Study followed: These adults in the criminal justice system were once children exposed to awful things.

What, then, is to be done with the knowledge that four in 10 prisoners typical to the Massachusetts state prison system saw someone killed as a child?

Mr. Western argues that this should force us to reconsider the simplified model of offenders-and-victims, and to allow more second chances to people we peg in the first category.

“The whole ethical foundation of our system of punishment I think is threatened once you take into account the reality of people’s lives,” he said. In the study, the people who had experienced the most extreme childhood trauma and violence also struggled the most in adulthood with drug addiction and mental and health problems. The line between the two is not straightforward. But it’s also not irrelevant.

Mr. Western is not proposing a sentencing formula — say, additional mercy for each adverse childhood experience. But there is some precedent for the philosophy he describes: When well-off, otherwise successful young adults get into trouble, we often take the entirety of their lives into account in punishing them. Supporters say “but he’s a good kid,” and lawyers argue “but he has a bright future.” We consider counselors and treatment programs, not just prison.

By contrast, for the poor, Mr. Western said, an entire life is more often reduced to the criminal event at hand: “There’s neither a past, nor a future.”

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