There is bipartisan consensus on both the state and federal levels that the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders should be reduced, and that process has slowly begun to build momentum. As the U.S. prison population has declined slightly over the past few years, prisoners’ rights advocates have argued that for the number of prisoners to drop dramatically, the criminal justice system will have to take steps to address offenders convicted of violent crimes.
President Obama, who has drawn attention to high levels of incarceration by visiting a federal prison in July 2015 and commuting the sentences of hundreds of mostly non-violent offenders, has also suggested expanding the focus of reform efforts beyond non-violent crimes, asking, “Can we, in fact, significantly reduce the prison population if we’re only focusing on non-violent offenses where part of the reason that in some countries – in Europe, for example – they have a lower incarceration rate because they also don’t sentence violent offenders for such long periods of time?”
U.S. Senator Cory Booker has gone even further, saying “I just want to ... give you a foreshadow of the future of what we must do as a society. We have labeled so many things violent crimes in such a huge way that we have got to start having an honest conversation about what really we want to be as a society.... I am just saying that we have to reexamine the system as a whole.”
The non-profit Justice Policy Institute (JPI) issued a report in August 2016 that cited the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), stating, “In 2014, of the 1.5 million people incarcerated in prisons, there were about 718,000 people whose most serious current conviction was a violent offense.” The BJS defines violent crimes as “homicide, rape (including sexual assault), robbery, aggravated assault (including simple assault), and other violent offenses if they lead to someone’s custody for more than one year.” Fully 50% of state prisoners are incarcerated for a violent crime, unlike in the federal prison system where drug and immigration-related offenses predominate.
The Marshall Project has argued for a focus on reducing the number of prisoners serving time for violent crimes, saying “simple math shows why violent offenders would have to be part of any serious attempt to halve the number of prisoners.” JPI agreed, noting that if violent offenders are excluded from reform efforts, then “about half the people in state prisons would not be covered under current strategies that are tailored to exclude people with convictions for violent offenses.”
JPI made three suggestions to address this problem: 1) standardize how violent offenses are categorized in different jurisdictions; 2) standardize the context of the crime so an offense is not categorized as violent merely if a weapon is present but not used; and 3) eliminate the disconnect between evidence-based incarceration strategies that actually work and sentencing practices.
In conclusion, the JPI report said the criminal justice system needs to recognize that a criminal offense often reflects a singular event, not a person’s capacity to change. Thus, reform efforts should include increased prevention, intervention and public health responses to violence, especially in inner cities, similar to a Marshall Plan for distressed communities. It also recommended lesser sanctions for crimes that result in incarceration, as well as reductions in the exorbitant number of people on supervised release, in the length of sentences for both violent and non-violent offenses, and in the number of jails and prisons nationwide.
Further, more efforts should be made to implement programs that divert youthful offenders from incarceration, and to provide training and resources to break the cycle of recidivism and mass incarceration.
Sources: “Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America’s Approach to Violence,” Justice Policy Institute (Aug. 2016); www.justicepolicy.org; www.salon.com
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