Criminal justice reform is an issue that unites people from all points on the political spectrum. From the Koch brothers to the American Civil Liberties Union, most advocates seem to agree that something must be done to address the injustice and the incredible financial costs posed by the current system.

The desire to appear tough on crime while still being reform-minded puts our political leaders in the position of using rhetoric – and taking action – that is incapable of truly addressing the problem. That is because any discussion about changes in our criminal justice system are strictly limited to addressing those referred to as “non-violent” or “low-level” offenders.

This means that we effectively eliminate the possibility of reform that would apply to over half of the inmates in state prisons in the U.S. – “violent” offenders.

We seem to be comfortable with these labels, even though they are not always accurate. Yet, it’s becoming clear to reform advocates that the distinction itself is a major flaw in our criminal justice system.

More importantly, by neglecting to include those who have been labeled as violent offenders in the reform conversation, we are ensuring that future policies will fail many people who truly deserve a second chance, and we are essentially tying our own hands before we even begin the reform process.

The classifications of nonviolent and violent offenders are often mired in plea deals and mislabeling of convicts. A person who was arrested for multiple crimes, including one that is considered a violent crime, might end up being charged with only the nonviolent crime as part of their plea deal. Conversely, someone who never actually harmed another person might be labeled as a violent offender, as is often the case with someone who commits a crime with the illegal possession of a gun.

We also have to admit that legislation excluding those classified as violent offenders will only go so far in reducing our prison population. The majority of our prison population is held in state prisons, and more than half of those in state prisons are classified as violent offenders. Typically, people convicted of a violent crime face harsher penalties and longer sentences than those convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Another reason that these labels do more harm than good is the fact that they provide little flexibility in the process.

Our policies draw a sometimes arbitrary line in the sand which removes the discernment of people who decide how long a person will serve in prison or when they can be released. It’s very similar to the problems we’ve encountered with mandatory minimums, which leave judges with no control over sentencing.

Classifying someone as a violent criminal and not evaluating them based on their previous criminal record, their behavior in prison, their mental health status and the likelihood that they’ll pose a threat to the public puts us in a position where we fail make any real progress in reducing the costs to taxpayers and the burdens of communities that see disproportionate levels of incarceration.

It’s likely true that most Americans would be uncomfortable with the idea of violent offenders being included in prison reform, but we have to ask if our policymakers are complicit in perpetuating the idea that addressing only nonviolent offenders will fix our problems. The failure to inject a more nuanced approach to criminal justice reform means that we will continue to see inadequate policies.

Non-violent offenders should certainly be a big part of our reform, and there’s little doubt that we have a completely misguided approach to handling drug offenders in our country. But making nonviolent offenders the sole focus of reform will do little in the way of ending mass incarceration in the United States. We have to ask ourselves, are we oversimplifying the problem with the distinction of nonviolent and violent offenders simply because it is more comfortable for us?

(possible sidebar)

Prison population in the U.S.

  • The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, but we have more than 20 percent of the world’s prison population.
  • The majority of prisoners in the United States are in state prisons.
  • Drug offenders make up only about one-sixth of the state prison populations.
  • Violent offenders make up over half of our state prison populations.

Dan Carman is a Kentucky criminal defense attorney. His website is http://www.kentuckycriminaldefenseattorney.com/

Sources:

http://www.politifact.com/virginia/statements/2014/dec/15/jim-webb/webb-says-us-has-5-percent-worlds-population-25-pe/

http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2016.html

http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p13.pdf

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