Incarceration and Accidental Death in Early Adulthood

This is a discussion post essay I wrote on 2014-10-26 for EDF 6155: Lifespan Human Development & Learning, a graduate class at University of Central Florida.

Richard Thripp
EDF 6155 Module 5 Discussion Post, “Issues & Stages of Development”
26 October 2014

Richard Thripp     Grade Contract A
Stage of Development: Early Adulthood
Issues to be addressed: Poverty and incarceration, accidental death

(1) Issue: Poverty and incarceration


While adolescents with late-onset delinquency typically do not continue their criminal activities into adulthood, boys who have violent tendencies at a younger age are more likely to live a life of crime with periods of incarceration (Berk, 2010, p. 425). Like reckless behavior, violent crime is primarily perpetrated by males—the minority of female adolescent arrests for violent crime typically involve mere simple assault (p. 424). Teenagers growing up in poor neighborhoods are more likely to commit crimes and have exposure to drugs, firearms, and gangs; this threat is further magnified by low-quality education and bad family relationships (p. 424).

From the mid-20th century to the early 21st century, the incarceration rate in the United States has increased from 0.11% to 0.74% as of mid-2005, a nearly sevenfold increase (Apel & Sweeten, 2010, p. 449). This gigantic increase is not correlated with an increase in crime, but rather “net widening” policies that result in imprisonment of offenders who previously would have received probation, and harsher sentences for less dangerous crimes (p. 448-49). Incarceration is having a profound impact on emerging adults, particularly on poor black men, who are given little leeway to “experiment, rebel, and misbehave” compared to privileged youth, and find themselves being imprisoned at an unfairly high rate (Comfort, 2012, p. 311). Being that contemporary culture downplays marriage, parenthood, and careers as markers of adulthood, for an increasing segment of the population, incarceration is filling this void and is arguably replacing college as a period for finding oneself. Despite being subjected to depressing and limiting environments, young prisoners with release dates often look forward with greater hope and optimism than their older cohorts, consider their incarceration a time for personal reflection and planning a better life, and even maintain loving marriages and long-term relationships while behind bars (Comfort, 2012).

Some factors are correlated with both poverty and risk of arrest, such as dropping out of high school, being unmarried, and lack of gainful employment (Bender, Tripodi, Aguilar, & Thompson, 2010). However, the belief that incarceration ruins one’s job prospects may not be based on actual evidence—Apel and Sweeten have suggested that negative employment outcomes may be based more on the resulting gap in employment history, and that for emerging adults, incarceration may actually be associated with higher income in the short term (2010, p. 468). However, in the long term, ex-inmates were found to have a $4000 to $5000 deficit in annual income, which was a difference between 14 and 18 percent, and in the short term they tended to work more hours at slightly lower wages. Critically, they found that ex-inmates were much more likely to be unemployed by choice, despite having little trouble finding work after their release (this evidence was based on self-reports). Further, the negative effect on securing employment following release typically persisted for only four months. In summary, the stigma surrounding incarceration may be less important to employment prospects than common discourse indicates; a lack of desire to participate in the workforce might be more to blame.


Apel, R., & Sweeten, G. (2010). The impact of incarceration on employment during the transition to adulthood. Social Problems, 57(3), 448-479. doi:10.1525/sp.2010.57.3.448

Bender, K., Tripodi, S., Aguilar, J., & Thompson, S. (2010). Predicting arrest in early adulthood: The relationship between internal and external sources of control. Social Work Research, 34(1), 58-64.

Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Comfort, M. (2014). “It was basically college to us”: Poverty, prison, and emerging adulthood. Journal of Poverty, 16(3), 308-322. doi:10.1080/10875549.2012.695923

(2) Issue: Accidental death


Reckless behaviors are much more frequent among males, especially in early adulthood. Alcohol frequently causes or is correlated with crime and unintentional injuries; 2 in 5 fatal motor vehicle collisions involve alcohol, and its links to violence and police activities are quite strong (Berk, 2010, p. 445). Alcoholism is also much more common among males, which is another reason why males are more likely to unintentionally injure themselves and injure other people, with or without intent. Sadly, motor vehicle accidents account for nearly half of all deaths among 25 to 44 year olds in the United States, greatly eclipsing cancer or heart disease (p. 439).

A Swedish cohort study of 49,411 males who were drafted in 1969 and 1970 between 18 and 20 years of age, given mandatory questionnaires about family background and behavioral factors, and assessed for injury mortality 35 years later produced interesting findings (Stenbacka, Leifman, Dalal, & Jansson, 2011). Accidental deaths in general were far more common among young Swedish men who reported alcohol use, mainly in motor vehicle crashes, but also due to drowning, fire, falling objects, or intoxication itself (p. 233). Conduct problems and incidents with police were the other two factors linked most strongly with injury death (p. 234). Early police contact was highly correlated with death by single vehicle accidents (p. 230), which may indicate a relationship between delinquency and reckless driving. In total, 485 men (0.98%) died due to unintentional injury over the 35 year period, which was 18% of the total deaths during the period. Nearly 60% of the 485 men died in car accidents, which is a testament to the great risks involved in driving or being a passenger in a small automobile.

Adolescents and young adults speed, run red lights, make illegal maneuvers, and drive while intoxicated or permit themselves to be the passengers of an intoxicated driver much more often than older adults, which has disastrous consequences—motor vehicle crashes caused a hefty 31% of injury-related deaths in the United States in 1996, and an appraisal from 1997 found the death rate for young adult drivers was more than 200% of the rest of the U.S. population (Stiglets, 2001, p. 451). Motor vehicle crashes, drowning, and firearm deaths are all substantially more common in males than females, which might be due to socialization that promotes risk-taking as something exciting or desirable, and beliefs of invulnerability among males which are disconnected from reality (p. 450).

Risk perceptions are at the heart of decisions to participate in risky behaviors. Studies by Haase and Silbereisen of students in a middle school, a high school, and a university in Germany found that positive affect was related to lower risk perceptions in all cases, in regards to drinking, smoking, being a passenger with a drunk driver, physical altercations, and unprotected sexual intercourse (2011). Subjects in these studies watched neutral or positive affective pictures for three minutes (while listening to similarly selected music), and were then assessed with a questionnaire presenting hypothetical scenarios and asking them to rate their perceptions of risk on a Likert scale. Risk perceptions were much higher in the neutral affect condition for all age groups (13, 17, and 23 year olds). This study may have groundbreaking implications for researchers—the authors note that subjects are usually more risk adverse when completing questionnaires compared to the real world, and propose a difference in affect may be a contributory factor. If sustained by further research, these results may mean that maintaining a level head—rather than being exuberantly enthusiastic—can prevent many accidental injuries and deaths in social settings, especially among impulsive individuals.


Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Haase, C. M., & Silbereisen, R. K. (2011). Effects of positive affect on risk perceptions in adolescence and young adulthood. Journal of Adolescence, 34(1), 29-37. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2010.03.004

Stenbacka, M., Leifman, A., Dalal, K., & Jansson, B. (2011). Early predictors of injury mortality among Swedish conscripts: A 35-year cohort study. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 43(1), 228-234. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2010.08.014

Stiglets, C. (2001). Unintentional injuries in the young adult male. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 13(10), 450-454. doi:10.1111/j.1745-7599.2001.tb00004.x

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