Florida Update From The Inside: Emotions and Misinformation Inhibit True Criminal Justice Reform
When the issue of criminal justice reform is raised, the hackles of most people go up when making any mention of including violent offenders. This reaction is based mostly upon emotion and emboldened by the mainstream media’s sensationalization of violent crimes.
In that emotional state, largely ignored are nationwide statistics that show violent offenders have much lower recidivism rates than nonviolent offenders. Another little known fact is that one-fifth of nonviolent offenders graduate to violent offenses.
To combat this ignorance, criminal reform advocates should focus on educating themselves, the media, and the public on the statistics and stories behind recidivism incidents. It only takes one released offender to commit a violent crime to cast a dark cloud upon efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down transfers from jails to prisons, jails became overcrowded. The solution was to release some nonviolent offenders on bond or supervision. One releasee in Pinellas County, Florida, illustrates the problem with deeming someone suitable for release based on their current crime. Within days of his release, that nonviolent releasee went out and committed a murder . A further investigation revealed he had a lengthy criminal record that included violent offenses.
That is not unusual situation. A Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study found that the average nonviolent offender had 9.3 prior arrests and 4.1 prior convictions. It also found that 80% of nonviolent offenders have a prior conviction history. Most alarmingly, 19.9% of released nonviolent offenders go on to commit violent offenses. In a follow-up study, BJS found that prisoners released for property offenses were the most likely to be rearrested. Those with a financial motive for their crime also have higher recidivist rates.
Despite these statistics, politicians and the media push to limit reforming the criminal justice system to the very persons who are most likely to create new victims: nonviolent offenders. When violent offenders are put into the equation, emotions rage.
That, of course, is logical. Violent offenses cause physical harm to the victim, and in cases of murder, the irrevocable loss of life. Nonviolent crimes, it must be recognized, have huge impacts. Victims of home burglaries often say their sense of safety within the home is permanently shattered. Stolen property may cause a financial loss from which they may never recover. Simply put, there is no such thing as a victimless crime. Regardless of the type of crime, there often is long-lasting damage, be it physical, emotional, or financial. Emotions, however, run highest against violent crimes.
Let Facts Prevail
When considering criminal justice reform, facts, not emotion, must prevail. The BJS has found that age, length of imprisonment, and the current and prior offense history are major factors in determining whether a prisoner will recidivate. Prisoners who severe 20 or more years and are age 40 or over have the lowest recidivist rate.
As for the most demonized offenders, murderers and sex offenders, they are the least likely to commit a new crime. BJS found that those offenders have a success rate of over 80% and only 1% recommit the previous crime of conviction. A Stanford University study of 860 released murderers found that only five committed a new crime and none were for murder. Meanwhile, the BJS found that 69.1% of nonviolent offenders commit a new crime within three years of release.
Understanding the criminal personality is essential to understanding why prisoners recidivate. Criminals thrive on power, excitement, and control. They also lack time perspective and want what they want right now. Typically, little change occurs in one’s personality after a short bid in prison because they often fail to make a true effort to change.
In retrospect, I can see that I had a criminal personality that led to me commit murder. Like many around me, I came from a broken home, had low self-esteem, and a substance abuse problem. Those issues, however real, were distracting from the root problem: selfishness.
My prior offense was a nonviolent offense of burglarizing a motor vehicle. Four years later, I committed murder. While my short stint in prison for the burglary compelled me to avoid thefts, I still had underlying character flaws that I buried with substance abuse. Those issues were never even considered problems until I was deep into serving my sentence of life without parole for 25 years.
In the midst of doing three decades in Florida prisons, I finally came to realize that I needed to make fundamental change from within. Along with aging and self-examination of the harms my actions caused others, I began to mature. Now, I gain excitement and power come from controlling myself and my thinking, which have led to better decisions and results. While I cannot control the circumstances around me, I can control my reaction to them.
The point of briefly relating my journey is that those who have done a short amount of prison time — or who are still within the age of those most likely to commit crime — have not been forced to take a deep look at themselves and how their actions lead to the same results of creating victims and landing behind bars. It must be acknowledged that there are both violent and nonviolent offenders who have failed to address their criminal personality issues and are at risk of reoffending upon release despite having served most of their lives in prison.
Look Beyond Labels
The crux of the issue is that the label of violent or nonviolent offender is not the sole indicator of success, nor should that label be the determinate of who criminal justice reform targets. Educating ourselves and others on the factors behind recidivism will lead to better results than relying on emotion and the misinformation that is propagated by politicians and the media. Doing otherwise will ultimately lead to releasing persons who will commit new crimes and create new victims after release.
There are no absolutes in this arena because we dealing with human behavior, which is unpredictable. Yet, by using statistics and studies on recidivism, we can see patterns that can be used in fashioning criminal justice policies. This information will lead to better results.
Policies must be based on facts, not emotion. We cannot cave into the ignorant politician who uses sound bites to appeal to his misinformed and emotion-laden base. It is easy and popular to sound tough on crime. The policies that came from that rhetoric has lead the United States to having the largest prison population in the world, imprisoning around 3 million people. Yet, we comprise only 3% of the world’s population
In recent years, numerous violent offenders have been released due to reform and court decisions. When the United States Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population, politicians and the media warned it would spawn a crime wave. That was a false prophecy meant to preserve the facade of the tough non-crime era.
Some prisoners fell within a short window provided by Florida Supreme Court opinions that required juveniles who were sentenced to parolable life sentences to be resentenced. I personally know of dozens who were released. All of them are leading successful lives.
Then, there are cases like Nate Myers. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 25 years for first-degree murder. The Florida Commission on Offender Review made it clear it was not going to release him. After serving 42 years, a special panel with the Duval County State Attorney’s Office determined he was innocent. He also is leading a crime-free life.
The commonality amongst most of these prisoners is they committed violent crimes, served decades in prison, and were over 40 when released. Using facts and statistics when creating and advocating for reform will lead to better results. The failure to do so will have a huge impact upon the future of our children. Our schools regularly struggle to receive the finances to equip teachers and our children with the tools that can help them succeed. Meanwhile, bad policies based on these labels and tough-on-crime rhetoric result in prisons and courts consuming scarce resources that are needed to educate children. Many schools, it is said, are pipelines to prison because the resources to intervene into youths’ lives are not available.
Excluding violent offenders from reform efforts is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions annually to imprison an aging population. As they languish in prison, statistics and studies show those offenders are the ones who are most likely to succeed upon release once they reach 40 and have served 20 or more years.
Placing labels on offenders is resulting in policy proposals to limit criminal justice reform to only nonviolent offenders. Some politicians say it is a non-starter to include violent offenders in reform efforts. They hold to this position despite the fact that statistics show 70% of nonviolent offenders commit a new crime within three years of release.
Emotions easily lead to bad results. Education more often leads to success and ends misinformation. True criminal justice reform can occur only when we end the use of labels as qualifiers for reform efforts and the use of statistics and facts are used to create outcome-based policies.