Jail, Young Insane Males, and the Connecticut Shootings: Thought or Two


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.

4 thoughts on “Jail, Young Insane Males, and the Connecticut Shootings: Thought or Two

  1. Some Dude

    It isn’t a bad theory, it seems logical in a way, but … It doesn’t make sense to me for some reason. I’m not sure why.

    I’ve spent time in prison, 2 years. And a whole lot of jail/county time on top of that for various stretches. And I’ve been in the psych ward before, but only for a week due to an accidental drug overdose (I was, admittedly, acting pretty nuts due to my being so messed up.)

    The prison I was in was level 4 or “close” security. It was full of violent offenders – people who had committed assaults and so forth, but just a handful of lifers, so not many murderers overall (some, but they’d tend to be 2nd degree or manslaughter, whatever.)

    I guess my objection would be … Criminals for the most part are NOTHING like these guys who go and shoot 20 strangers or children in what amounts to a suicide attack. It wouldn’t appeal to them at all. Criminals are motivated by profit – they want something, and their crime is perceived as an easy way to obtain it. They are also motivated by ego – you feel powerful when you transgress against societies boundaries. Many of them are angry, and their crimes are a way in which they are expressing their anger, but the violence they perpetrate for that reason tends to be very PERSONAL. Somebody disrespects them or ignores them or makes them feel small so they go off on them maybe. A kindergarten class doesn’t really have any appeal as a target.

    They’d be disgusted by it for various reasons. It smacks of cowardice. Children are often targets. Believe it or not, most guys in prison can’t abide anyone who abuses kids much less kills them, probably because many of them were abused themselves. That’s one of the reasons (I feel) that pedophiles are the targets of so much rage, but the other reason would be that what pedophiles do is strange, bizarre, or disconcerting to them. Criminals don’t like weird shit. They don’t like weirdos. If any of these guys had tried to buy a gun from the average criminal they’d have just been robbed by them or run off straight away, because nobody wants to deal with lunatics. They are major liabilities. And they make people uncomfortable, and that can feel threatening. You don’t want to be perceived as a threat by a career criminal, obviously.

    There are crazy people in prison. A lot of them go crazy while they are there. Incarceration is a form of torture, whether you believe it’s necessary or not, anyone who honestly examines the prison environment and what it’s meant to achieve psychologically has to conclude that it amounts to psychological torture (particularly solitary confinement) and erodes the mental health of the people there. I don’t have a solution for that.

    Finally, I agree with all of your statistics and so forth about minorities spending more time locked up, however … If you accept that prison erodes people’s mental health, and that it’s tantamount to torture in some respects, and then you recognize that many more minorities go to prison …

    …. That means many many more mentally ill minorities then get OUT of prison. Most people don’t go in forever. Very few do. So most of them get out, and yet they’re not headed straight to the playground to shoot the place up. These are seriously damaged guys with histories of violence and access to illegal weapons given their lifestyle. But they don’t go on shooting sprees (at any age.)

    So… There must be a reason, but I doubt that it’s disparities in prison time between minorities and whites …

  2. Some Dude

    PS: Apologies for the double reply, but this bears noting as well:

    A large percentage of violent crimes are committed by people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Alcohol is a factor in a ridiculous amount of violence. So some of the guys who end up doing 5 or 7 years for stomping somebody were really drunk when they did it and that’s why things got so out of hand or why they couldn’t control their temper on that occasion. A hell of a lot of murders get committed by people who are under the influence.

    Age and gender are obviously indicators – young males are more aggressive, for sure But I think what can take their aggression from a mere fist fight to a homicide is alcohol and sometimes drugs (illegal drugs will fuck you up, right, but as far as making people irrationally violent goes I’ve never seen anything quite as effective as alcohol, go figure.)

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