Almost all the major criminal justice reforms passed in the last two decades, both at the state and federal level, explicitly exclude people convicted of offenses labelled violent from enhanced programming and opportunities to petition for sentence reduction. (Note the graphic below, prepared by the Prison Policy Initiative.)
Yet, categorically excluding people convicted of violent offenses only limits the impact of reform: Cutting incarceration rates to anything near pre-1970s levels or international norms is impossible without changing how we regard these individuals, due to their sheer numbers. More than 40% of people in prison or jail populations are locked up for violent offenses—often for decades. Between 1981 and 2016, the average time served in state prisons tripled for murder and nearly doubled for sexual assault and robbery. These changes were coupled with a sharp increase in life sentences, nearly all for violent offenses. These extreme sentences place the United States well outside of international norms: Thirty percent of people with life sentences worldwide are in this country.
Long sentences are not a deterrent
People mistakenly believe that long sentences have a deterrent effect. But a 2016 briefing by the National Institute of Justice summarizing available research concluded that prison sentences (especially long sentences) do little to deter future crime. Another study concluded: “Compared to non-custodial sanctions, incarceration has a null or mildly criminogenic impact on future criminal involvement.” In other words, incarceration is often counterproductive.
People convicted of violent crimes are least likely to recidivate
People convicted of violent offenses have among the lowest rates of recidivism, demonstrating that they are not inherently violent and can succeed in the community. An act of violence represents a single moment in someone’s life; patterns of ongoing violence years into the future are rare.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted two studies on 400,000 people released in 30 states. It found that while re-arrest rates are high for all people released from prison, people convicted of violent offenses are less likely to be re-arrested within three years than those convicted for nonviolent crimes. Although there is no comparable national estimate, data points from around the country show that remarkably few people convicted of violence return to prison after release.
In Maryland, for example, a 2012 court case (Unger v. Maryland) led to the release of nearly 200 people convicted of violent crimes who had been incarcerated since 1981 or earlier. As of 2018, only five had been returned to prison for violation of parole or a new crime. “The Ungers” were released with robust social support, underscoring the effectiveness of community-based programs and services in preventing future offending.
The bottom line
It is key to remember that many key risk factors for violence are actually related to social and community conditions, not individual attributes. Poverty, inequality, high unemployment, high rates of neighborhood instability, and lack of educational and economic opportunities all contribute to violence in communities.
In addition, no matter how much we lock people away and otherwise, punish, the level of risk will never be zero; that’s not attainable in any sphere of human endeavor or experience. And trying to achieve comes at great cost to the future potential of those we lock up and the healthy adjustment of their families. Instead, we must balance our aspirations for a crime-free society with a commitment to rehabilitation and second chances.