Justice Voices Episode 4: Violentization

What makes violent people violent? The short answer is violentization.

Dangerous violent people almost invariably choose to become violent to survive physically and emotionally in what they perceive as a dog-eat-dog world, a perception rooted in the chronic trauma of being the victim of repeated acts of violence, usually beginning in their homes and neighborhoods as a child and adolescent.

According to Lonnie Athens, a criminologist at Seton Hall University who studies violent criminals primarily through in-depth personal interviews. “When people look at a dangerous violent criminal at the beginning of his developmental process rather than at the very end of it, they will see, perhaps unexpectedly, that the dangerous violent criminal began as a relatively benign human being for whom they would probably have more sympathy than antipathy. Perhaps more importantly, people will conclude that the creation of dangerous violent criminals is largely preventable …. Therefore, if society fails to take any significant steps to stop the process behind the creation of dangerous violent criminals, it tacitly becomes an accomplice in creating them.”

As a result of his research, Athens describes five stages of a developmental process that he calls “violentization,” starting with repeated traumatic experiences of being brutalized and then being coached to decide that in a world of violence the only way to protect themselves is to fight fire with fire, to become more violent and feared than those who would otherwise victimize them. (08:49)

Successful experiences with using violence to gain power over their environment can progress to the point of being, in effect, addictive. It can even become dangerous to abandon a violent persona due to the resulting vulnerability to retaliatory attack by past victims. (22:56)

In short, through the process of violentization, victims of violence become victimizers in a spiral of violence that can spread throughout a community like a virus.

In part 2 of this episode, we will explore Athens’ observations and thinking regarding violentization of communities and his recommendations for interventions at both the individual and community levels.

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Justice Voices is a video podcast program featuring stories that need to be told and voices that need to be heard regarding criminal justice, including restorative justice. The host, David Risley, is a former career federal prosecutor and former Director of Public Safety Policy in the Illinois Governor's office (Link to personal website: https://david-risley.com) Most episodes will feature interviews with returned citizens who will relate their lived experience before, during, and after going to prison, starting with a series of interviews of some of Mr. Risley's former defendants, starting with Lynard Joiner, who will co-host many episodes. The objective of Justice Voices is two-fold: (1) educate the public about criminal justice issues; and (2) give healing voice to those who stories about crime and the justice system need to be told, including both perpetrators of crimes and victims. Copyright notice: David Risley asserts copyright to "Justice Voices" and "JusticeVoices".