This study compared exposure to violence and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms among incarcerated juvenile delinquents and teens who were not incarcerated. It also looked at differences in violence exposure within the group of youth involved in the juvenile justice system, examining whether those who had witnessed and suffered the most violence in home and in the community had higher levels of PTSD and more serious delinquent behavior. The study subjects were 200 adolescents in custody of juvenile justice authorities in Los Angeles County, and 200 students attending one of four high schools in Los Angeles.
Incarcerated youths are quite different from their peers in the community in terms of exposure to violence and levels of PTSD symptoms. While the high school students, like the delinquent youths, came from inner-city neighborhoods, they had seen much less violence. For example, 92% of the incarcerated youth knew someone who had been killed; for the high school students the figure was 57.5%. Just over 16% of the delinquent children had witnessed a suicide, while only 4% of the community sample had. The vast majority of incarcerated adolescents-72%-had been shot or shot at with a gun, while 23% of the students had been victimized in this way. Overall, incarcerated youth were much more likely to have symptoms of PTSD. Interestingly, the high school girls had higher rates of PTSD than high school boys and the incarcerated boys.
In designing the study, the researchers had predicted that youth involved in more serious crimes would report higher levels of exposure to violence at home and in their communities. The research supported that hypothesis in some respects. Among the girls, those who reported more physical punishment were more likely to carry and use guns. For both boys and girls, exposure to community violence was related to gang involvement and gun possession and use. Differences in levels of delinquent activity, as measured by the seriousness of the offence for which the youth were incarcerated, were not consistently linked with level of exposure to violence. But higher exposure to violence was associated with higher levels of PTSD symptoms.