Reframing how we think/talk about criminal justice & prison reform

Attention to mass incarceration and criminal (in)justices has increased greatly in recent years. Criminal justice and prison reform movements are gaining currency across the political spectrum, but there remains a problematic dichotomy among violent vs. non-violent offenders in determining who deserves the benefit of such reform efforts. This is a mistake for several reasons. By focusing on the low-hanging fruit of non-violent offenders, we reify the incorrect meta-narrative that the War on Drugs is to blame for this era of hyper incarceration. The majority of people in CA & American prisons are not locked up for drug possession or drug dealing. Figures vary, but safe estimates conclude that less than 17% of offenders in state prisons are incarcerated on drug charges.

For those who seek to transcend the superficial tides of understanding that beseech narratives about mass incarceration, it’s strikingly obvious that reducing prison populations means releasing a whole lot of violent offenders. But here is where our conceptualizations about prison reform fail us. The vocabulary we use to discuss violent offenders is so impoverished that it fails to adequately convey the types of behaviors that lead to incarceration. When one hears the term ‘violent offender’ it immediately conjures visceral fears of murder, rape, and other heinous acts. But the nature of violent offenses differs between states (and counties) so broadly that most would be quite surprised to learn the charges that classify as violent offenses. In Washington, D.C., yelling at a police officer is a violent offense. Until Prop 47 in CA, robbing an empty house was considered a violent act. This characterization of violent offenders goes beyond rhetoric, it’s reflected in policy.

By using the term ‘violence’ imprecisely, it’s easier to relegate criminals to the fringes of society for the rest of their lives. For example, let’s say a drug addict shares some of his heroin with a friend. The friend accidentally overdoses and dies. Is the addict a murderer or a non-violent offender? Or let’s say a group of three young men decide to burglarize an empty home. Two go in, while one stays outside as a get away driver. Unbeknownst to them, the home is not empty and the two men fatally shoot the resident. Is the get away driver a violent criminal in this dynamic?

Some of the most urgent questions we can ask about violent offenders are more aligned with philosophy than policy. Is violence a permanent and immutable human condition? Is violence only physical? How much does intention matter? Is violence more violent if one wears a certain color of clothing or is friends with certain people? If one is a certain race? Do violent offenders deserve second chances? Or, do they deserve to be condemned forever wasting away in cages?

These questions may strike observers as abstract, but it’s a luxury to not spend time pondering them. It can be virtually impossible for someone with a violent offense on their record to rebuild their life, granted they even get released from prison. How long should they have to pay?


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