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Many “Violent Offenders” Actually Committed Non-Violent Crimes

by Bill Barton

The conservative Heritage Foundation said in December 2018 that “our federal prisons house thousands of low-level offenders and America must do better.”

According to a survey of laws in all 50 states by The Marshall Project, there are more than a dozen states where people can be charged and convicted as a violent criminal if they enter a dwelling that is not theirs. Burglary is deemed a violent crime.

In North Carolina, trafficking a stolen identity and selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or playground are both considered violent offenses. A July 2018 analysis by The Marshall Project found that a significant portion of prisoners – 7,532 of approximately 35,700 total – were incarcerated for crimes deemed violent under North Carolina’s habitual violent offender law.

In Minnesota, aiding an attempted suicide and marijuana possession (depending on the quantity) are classified as violent crimes. The July 2018 analysis found that about 3,092 prisoners out of 9,849 in Minnesota’s prison system were locked up for crimes that might not seem violent to an objective observer.

Other “violent” crimes in various jurisdictions include purse snatching, embezzlement, theft of drugs and, in New York, possession of a gun with bullets.

If those convicted of such offenses are ever re-arrested, they could be considered as having a violent criminal history, and therefore be denied bail or community supervision and instead sent to jail. Similarly, if they fail a drug test while under supervision, they may be returned to prison as a violent offender even though testing positive for drugs is not itself a violent offense.

Phillip Kopp, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Fullerton noted the justice system needs to reframe what is considered a violent offense.

“Burglary just means entering a structure with the ‘intent’ to commit some kind of crime therein – even if you step right back out and nothing else happens,” he said. “It’s just going inside: anything you do additionally, like robbery, would be charged as an additional offense.”

Minnesota’s classification of marijuana possession as a violent crime is puzzling and problematic, to say the least – particularly given the number of other states that are legalizing marijuana use.

If the U.S. is serious about criminal justice reform, rethinking the way that violent crime is defined would be a significant step in reducing mass incarceration. Over half of state prison populations are composed of violent offenders, thus how they are defined is an important component of our nation’s approach to crime and punishment. 



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