I believe we need to have a mature discussion about how we punish violent crime.
At no point will this article argue that people should not suffer consequences for committing violent crimes, that people should not be accountable for committing violent crimes, or that we should not provide support for victims.
In fact, part of the reason I am making this argument is that I believe that the current system reduces incentives for accountability and responsibility and ends in more not less violent crime.
Currently, most criminal justice reform legislation carves-out its relief to only those people sentenced to non-violent or low-level charges.
But at the same time, it is factually correct that over 50% of people in prisons are labeled as violent criminals, which means that we can’t solve Mass Incarceration without breaking through the violence-reform barrier.
I absolutely understand that this is a very emotional topic, and in no way is it intended to trivialize or minimize the physical or emotional impact of crime.
So what are the reasons we should consider an end to the enforcement of this barrier?
1. Violence is Usually Defined By Statute
One would think “violence,” as a legal concept, means a physical attack on another human being. But, unfortunately, what is and is not violence is defined by statute and often has nothing at all to do with what most of us would define as violent behaviors.
So, for instance, you can be found guilty of a violent crime for being an accessory to violence, for an online-only crime, or for thousands of other activities beyond violent contact with another human being.
2 Violent Criminals Usually Age Out of Violence
We tend to assume that violence is an inherent “forever feature” of people who commit violent crimes. Actually, in most cases, this is NOT an accurate description of human behavior. Most violent crime is contextual (particular to specific people and specific situations), usually represents a phase, and people generally “age out” of crime.
This has led, for instance, prominent criminologist John Pfaff to state:
I should probably also mention an argument that Harvard Professor of Sociology Bruce Western made in his most recent book “Homeward: Life In the Year After Prison”: Most perpetrators of violence have also been witnesses and victims of violence as well. These activities rarely occur in a vacuum, are usually more complicated than we depict, and the perpetrators usually age out.
This is not an excuse for committing violent acts, or a reason not to hold people accountable for violent acts. This is an argument that long-sentences and withholding reform from people who were sentenced to violent crimes is often counterproductive.
3. Violence Responds Positively to Therapy
Even if violence were an inherent characteristic, punishing it excessively seems to be based on the notion that people can’t be “cured” of violent behaviors. Even before they “age out” of crime, therapies can have a positive effect on criminal behaviors.
Again, this is not about holding people accountable, it is about how we hold people accountable. As long as people are eventually returning home, we should ensure we create the best possible outcomes.
Oddly enough, even the deterrent effect of longer-sentences is highly questionable. Research suggests that the certainty of sentences deters while the length of sentences does not. As a review of all of the available evidence conducted by The Sentencing Project put it:
Existing evidence does not support any significant public safety benefit of thepractice of increasing the severity of sentences by imposing longer prison terms.
4. Prisons and Jails Are Terribly Ineffective and Most People in Prison and Jail are Coming Home Eventually
As a society, we seem to believe that incarceration is an answer to crime, unfortunately, even accounting for removal from society, prisons and jails ultimately make us less safe.
David Roodman, Senior Advisor at the Open Philanthropy Project, put it like this in a recent post:
“The crux of the matter is that tougher sentences hardly deter crime, and that while imprisoning people temporarily stops them from committing crime outside prison walls, it also tends to increase their criminality after release. As a result, “tough-on-crime” initiatives can reduce crime in the short run but cause offsetting harm in the long run.”
Also, most of those folks going to prison are eventually coming home.
5. Limiting Reform to Non-Violence Sets the Bar Low For Circumvention
In order to circumvent reforms that are limited only to people who committed non-violent crimes, legislators need only code more crimes as violent.
In order to circumvent reforms that are limited only to people who committed non-violent crimes, prosecutors need only charge people with more violent felonies.
In other to circumvent reforms that are limited only to people who committed non-violent crimes, prosecutors need only refuse to plea bargain away violent charges.
It is time to stop being reflexively “tough on crime” and start being “smart on crime.” Continually, deferring to failed models are extremely costly and rarely create much societal safety or value.
Let me leave you with one final thought: if you are concerned with accountability and responsibility, there is an alternative solution for that as well, it is called Restorative Justice:
Josh is the co-host of the Decarceration Nation podcast, a blogger, and a freelance writer. Please consider following him on Twitter, throwing a tip into his hat on Patreon, showing your appreciation using Paypal.me, or adding OnPirateSatellite to your feeds.