The Connecticut shootings are horrifying. But they’ve also got me thinking about demographics and jail-time.
Could it be that one reason we see mostly (but by no means exclusively) privileged white male shooters is because they’re better-shielded from prison at a young age, unlike their poorer/and or minority counterparts?
We’re well aware that young white and Asian males form the majority of school shooters, especially those who have achieved mass media notoriety in recent times. We also know that the majority of these shooters have a history of mental illness of some kind, often undiagnosed, not-noticed, or just plain ignored by the people in their lives: Mother Jones wrap-up of 61 cases of spree shootings in the last 30 years indicates that at least 38 of the perpetrators had some history of mental illness.
Another factor unites them: most never have served jail time prior to the shootings, though some do have a few minor dings on their record. Their average age? Merely 35, according to Mother Jones eminently useful wrap-up of these cases.
What about mentally ill young men of color, or those from poorer families—and why don’t they tend to commit as many of these spree killings?
Jail might be a factor in this.
It’s clear that young men of color are a lot more likely to serve jail-time than their white counterparts. 2010 stats show that 37 percent of male inmates between the age of 18 and 29 are black, and 23 percent are Hispanic. If we look at young men between age 20 and 24, 8 percent of these black youth are incarcerated, as opposed to 1.3 percent of whites. That’s a pretty yawning gap.
If we look at juvenile offenders, there’s data that children of color serve longer sentences than their white counterparts for the same offenses—and that juries (largely white) tend to favor longer sentences for them.
So, all this conspires to see considerably more young men of color behind bars at an early age, the same age when a number of these spree killings take place, than their white counterparts.
If these young men of color are suffering from a mental illness, as a worryingly high number of the incarcerated do—well, the odds that they’ll be in the prison system at a very early age just get higher.
Many experts and workers in the field say that the prison and juvenile detention system have been forced to take the place of mental hospitals and community mental health resources in recent years. It’s difficult for many kids to access mental health care before they commit a crime, and when they do, it’s likely they’ll be bounced around the system for years to come.
When young white kids are funneled into the system, some research indicates they tend to be given more lenient sentences. Look at Jared Loughner and the two Columbine shooters, who were all convicted of minor offenses before their fatal spree, and were able to complete diversion programs as penance. None of these young men served any jail-time—and one wonders what the outcome might have been if they were young minorities instead.
Another potential reason why young white men with mental illnesses stay out of prison long enough to commit these crimes?
With the benefit of financial resources, time, at least somewhat-involved families, and decent schools, these troubled young men’s problems can be swept under the table, temporarily alleviated, or flat-out ignored for longer that might be the case for their counterparts—in other words, all solutions that don’t involve being removed from the general population.
Adam Lanza’s mother was able to home-school her son when the school system (as it currently appears) declined to deal with him any longer. Eric Harris was attending sessions with a psychologist right up until he committed his murders, and from most accounts, did a terrifyingly good job of convincing the mental health professional that he was on the up-and-up.
Now, why do middle-aged men—who comprise a good number of the shooters—do it?
The above data is a lot less helpful. But the fact they’re still a lot less likely to be incarcerated than their minority counterparts might be at least one piece of the puzzle.