America Can’t Reduce Incarceration without Addressing Violent Crime

Recently, I had the privilege of spending time with three men who had served a total of over 100 years in prison after having been convicted of violent crimes. The three included Roach Brown, whose life sentence for a murder committed during a robbery was commuted after he served over 30 years; Stanley Mitchell, who was released in 2013 after serving 34 years of a life sentence for being the getaway driver in a fatal robbery; and Walter Lomax, who was exonerated and released in 2006 after serving nearly 40 years of a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. 

In addition to serving extremely long sentences following convictions for violent crimes, what these three men have in common is that they are all doing well and all contribute to their communities.

As we discussed their experiences during a radio show hosted by Roach Brown, I was again struck by the folly of America’s approach to addressing violent crime. As the National Academy of Sciences notes in its seminal work on the causes of prison population growth, “The change in penal policy over the past four decades may have had a wide range of unwanted social costs, and the magnitude of crime reduction benefits is highly uncertain.”

As a number of states across the country have shown, including New York, New Jersey and California, we can have fewer people in prison and lower crime rates.

Our discussion took place during a time when there is more support than ever on both sides of the political aisle for criminal justice reform. But the national conversation and policy reforms have focused almost exclusively on reducing the incarceration of people convicted of nonviolent offenses. Yet almost half of the people in prison have been convicted of a violent crime. That means there is no way the U.S. will meaningfully reduce its incarceration rate without changing how the justice system treats so-called violent crimes.

Thankfully, there are signs policymakers may be willing to try a different approach. In the juvenile justice system, along with declines in juvenile crime, there has been a concerted effort to meet the needs of youth in the community through effective and less costly alternatives to incarceration, resulting in more than a 50 percent drop in the number of youth confined in juvenile facilities over the past decade. We have also seen Supreme Court rulings prohibiting mandatory life-without-parole sentences for those who commit a crime before their 18th birthday. 

From California to New York, fewer parole decisions simply consider “the nature of the crime,” instead taking into account how likely someone is to reoffend if released. There has also been some chipping away at mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenses. And when faced with spikes in violent crime, some city leaders are rejecting approaches that simply rely on enhanced penalties and are investing more in the communities hit hardest.

These modest steps are encouraging, though they need to be tempered with reality. The latest surveys show only a one percent reduction in the national prison population, along with a slight increase in jailed populations. The United States still has the highest incarceration rate and the largest prison population in the world. And many of the proposals to improve how we respond to violent crime failed to pass during congressional or state legislative sessions in 2016.   

The data is clear: America will not significantly reduce incarceration unless the justice system changes its approach to violence. We need to ask who defines a behavior as violent, how the justice system treats these behaviors, and whether the approach to violent crime makes us safer.

In our new report, Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America’s Approach to Violence, the Justice Policy Institute looks more closely at these issues.

It’s important to note that behavior may be defined as a violent crime in one place and as a nonviolent crime somewhere else, and that context matters in the way violent and nonviolent crimes are treated by the justice system. For example, behavior that wouldn’t otherwise be defined as a violent crime can be classified as violent and mean a much longer term of imprisonment when a gun is involved. So while it is true that gun violence is a serious problem in many communities, we also know that there has been almost zero political will to actually remove guns from our streets.

Finally, the report examines the significant disconnect between current policies and the evidence of what actually makes us safer. For instance, while research shows that people convicted of some of the most serious offenses—such as homicide or sex offenses—can have the lowest recidivism rates, this is often not taken into consideration when considering sentence lengths.

If America is going to truly come to grips with our addiction to incarceration, we need to have a serious and informed conversation about how we respond to people charged with and convicted of violent crimes. Otherwise, all of the energy and effort to reduce incarceration will result only in marginal changes, which unfortunately won’t move us much closer to a fair and effective justice system. 

Learn More:



Less than 1% of humans die from violent acts.

Two-thirds of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. are suicides. In 2010, there were 19,392 firearm-related suicides, and 11,078 firearm-related homicides in the U.S.

Gang homicides accounted for roughly 8,900 of 11,100 gun murders in both 2010 and 2011. That means that there were just 2,200 non gang-related firearm murders in both years in a country of over 300 million people and 250 million guns.

Women are more likely to use a weapon in a domestic dispute.

I agree, largely, however- violent crime is already at an all time low- double digits over the 80's, yet, incarceration is still the highest rate and total in the world.

I didn't see anything in this article about the fact that 90 percent of the increase in the incarceration of women over the past 20 years can be attributed to wrongful arrest of battered women who lawfully defended themselves and/or their children. We need to be looking at getting innocent women out of prison and preventing them from being arrested before we excuse man who actually committed violent crimes. And, yes, we need to humanize everybody in the prison industrial complex.

Let me add one more comment: if we treated battering as the paramount social issue contributing to societal violence – instead of sidelining it as a "women's issue" – then we can make progress on the author's thesis. Most of these men who commit mass shootings are also batterers: i.e., Adam Lanza, who killed his mom 1st before he shot to death all those at Sandy Hook elementary; the Orlando shooter; etc.

You do remember that these "innocent women" were convicted by a jury of their peers, and, I am sure, those juries included women. Just because they are women does not merit different treatment.

I was o a jury that convicted a battered woman of murder. A major contributing factor is how the laws are written. The jury felt awful about it. Over half of us, including some of the men, broke down in tears in the jury room, but because in order to follow the law, we had to bring that verdict.

That's the purpose of a jury. If everyone felt she was not guilty then make that decision. They say follow the law but the jury is the final say so. Too bad the jury went against what it knew was right.

Ever heard of 'Jury Nullification'?

I guess not.

Jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of "Not Guilty" despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. The jury in effect nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding.

This is why you're tried by your peers and not a government official.

A 'jury of peers' with all the individual bias is almost impossible to realize. "Addiction to Incarceration" begins with the court structure and its inherent "ego" to practice perfect law. Justice reform has become politicized by the very institution responsible to keep itself balanced. Wake up! Fairness is not in the equation. Control is.

A new approach to incarceration and violent crimes lies in policy participation of the accused. This starts with allowing the accused to select those who ultimately decide their fate in US elections.

Yes, we have ugly problems with our Justice system but this 'now' national attention on how whites are suppressing blacks and how whites, police and our justice system, our government are all creating the injustice they've individually, personally suffered for 400 years here in the USA. All the harmful behaviors, all the crime that blacks are doing is excused away and blamed on everyone but the person who did the crime. This is a major problem and why EVERYONE doesn't see this blame and anger toward whites and our Government as a ruse to excuse criminal behavior... is unbelievable! Just because someone is banging pots loudly, trying to distract and twist facts and blaming everyone (but the person who did the crime), doesn't mean they are right, but they've certainly gotten a lot of mileage out of blaming, accusing, pointing fingers, distracting from the very real issue that a black chose to commit a violent crime against another human being.

In truth, the justifications they give for their behavior is based upon Blame instead of the reality of this moment in time and the pure fact that each person is responsible for their choices, their actions and they way they live today.

Hey, I'm Native American, I've lived a very long time. I've seen the changes made from the 50's and 60's until today. Other than the violence blacks did to blacks in the poor inner city neighborhoods, I've seen, experienced and have been proud of how our US Society had accepted integration of all people .

I know because I've personally experienced - that every American has the potential and the gift of opportunity (because of the way our government is) ... Each American can make of their lives what ever they want. They can be just about anything they want. Reality is..It's not the government or society that is responsible for this gift of making of our lives, our choice in work, etc.. It's each and every individuals right and ability.. choice and responsibility.. No one else's!!!

The truth is... if you want to do anything you must first learn what it takes to do that thing.. you must educate yourself, (easily done at the Public Library or through grants for college). You must also have the, will and drive to make it through the challenges between you and your goal, you must learn and adjust in order to reach your goal. No one will just give you what you yourself can do for yourself! That's reality, and it's a beautiful gift, opportunity that we all have, each one of us (regardless of race or religion.)

As a Native American, I see the insanity happening with BLM... the blaming, distraction, insanity that BLM is spewing... without offering any solutions... except violence and destruction toward everyone who doesn't give them what they want.... I see the submission to this insanity.. I see everyone bowing down to this loud and threatening insanity and I'm appalled, shocked that no one seems to be talking about the truth but they're sure allowing insanity to rule.

It seems to be acceptable that people are dying, these blacks are killing other blacks and whites, businesses are being burned down, communities are being destroyed.. but as the BLM woman said.. don't riot in our neighborhoods, go the the white neighborhoods because we don't want our hair stores to be harmed, we like them. And as countless BLM followers have said, everything you have is owed to me because my distant ancestor was a slave... None of them seem to be aware of the truth....they deny it. To the truth ADD: Each human being alive today has ancestors who were slaves, but none of these people are screaming about what happened in the long ago past.. you don't see any other race killing, doing violence, murdering and blaming, excusing their behavior on the long ago past.

No one forces anyone to do a crime, and everyone knows it's wrong to steal, kill, harm others. Yet, time after time we hear the same excuses and blame when someone kills, robs, harms, lies, steals, riots, etc. It all reminds me of the people I've known who have some sort of mental illness. They manipulate, lie, distract, blame, excuse etc, the exact things the BLM followers and speakers are saying. ... in order to distract attention from them and confuse the situation. It's really no different from the excuses and distractions thieves, murders, violent manipulating people do all the time! It's all just a ruse to get away from the responsibility. It's a well used tactic most humans do and have done since the dawn of humanity.

This attention on redefining violent crime, demanding that not being compliant with the authority of the police, or laws, shoplifting, robbery, murder, etc.. that some blacks acceptable and excusable because their 20th GR, GR, Grand parents were sold by their own tribes in Africa to Spanish and English slave traders into slavery, and blamed on white people in the USA in this moment in time, instead. is because the BLM movement is funded by organizations to shake up our system. It's why the BLM movement isn't offering solutions and can only blame and twist the truth. The followers of BLM, all seem to be brainwashed, they all repeat the same inaccurate statements which are not based upon the facts of reality, today. But they are based upon facts of the past being twisted into hate which promotes violence, it is based upon blaming others for their own choices and behaviors. It's a well used tactic and I sincerely hope that instead of our accepting violent behaviors, lies and changing our laws to make violent crime acceptable here in the USA... I hope we Americans can instead... look at the very real issue at hand. Humanity needs to grow up and out of childhood by acknowledging the fact that each person is responsible for their words and actions. What ever race of human they are.. and if they don't follow the laws here in the USA.. they must face the consequences of their actions. If they choose to do no harm they can live as they will, but if they choose to do harm, they will be removed from society and re-educated.

They should remain excluded from open society until they learn and prove that they understand that criminal behavior is not acceptable, they must be re-educated to understand their own thoughts and choices and to be responsible for themselves for everything they do and say.

It doesn't matter what color or religion a person is, but what does matter is criminal behavior and following the rules, regulations, laws we have here in the USA. There is no excuse for criminal behavior. Human society, all of us.. should never accept it as normal behavior because it is not!!!

We need to also re-educate humanity.. to stop accepting criminal behaviors happening every day in our world at every level.. from our families to our Government.. Humanity must grow up, we must understand that lies, harming others, seeing others as a source for personal gain is completely, without question.. unacceptable.

We certainly don't need to re-define violent crime. Anyone involved in actively doing harm to anyone else.. that is what is violent crime is to me.... but evidently.. not to many in our justice system. Has the world gone crazy, is the whole US system failing us all?

Yes 1 in 3 persons are incarcerated for a violent offence, but the solution must include investments in applying our knowledge of violence prevention. Prevention is the most effective and cost effective way to deal with violent crime. Smarter Crime Control is investing in what is proven to stop violence. The evidence is clear that these investments would cut rates of violent crime by a further 50% or more, particularly using proven strategies at the city level like Glasgow, Scotland or even Minneapolis. Further reductions in violent crime do result in fewer persons incarcerated. It is time to read and apply the evidence.

Basic Income would cut deeply into crime and gangs . It's the need to generate an income which leads to most crime even violent crime . No new tax schemes needed because Basic Income could be part of the Federal Reserve System . You can do all the studies but citizens 18-59 250/week over 60 or disabled 400/week . One Tax tax rate 33% 80,000$ deduction so you would have a population that has enough local money to support services like law enforcement, schools, water treatment . Enough local money to support small businesses. Trickle down does not work. It is natural for systems to grow from the bottom up . A tree grows from the ground up . As for Basic Income being part of the FED Reserve system it's all book keeping and the money for this is the same as a free loan to the people . As bank debt is paid back to the FED Reserve this New Money can be recirculated back to the Basic Income . Never expanding the amount of money in the economy again . This allows the fractional reserve system to still be the main creator of "New Money" based on debt . Which is an unsustainable system anyway unless there is some money created without bills of credit aka debt money . The value our money actually has is our faith that it has value . Since we are phsycologically locked into this belief system this is our legal tender for economic exchange . Gold has production value but it's not as valuable as we perceive other than it's its limited quantity . That's why the big banks decided to back getting off the gold standard so the sky was the only limit . They print the paper and keep the available supply relatively low and it will have value but the paper supply needs spread around better than just through jobs which most are very low wage . Allow people the right to exist . No, people will not stop working . No, people will not breed to stress level populations as long as they are not paid to breed like welfare creates single mothers who want housing and income . No, people will not be dependent on big government because all the government is doing is protecting the economic system with Basic Income. As there is a more fair economic system people will make the right choices . The US should be the country to lead the way . Is this not a common sense idea ?

I have a client that was charged with robbery after he walked out of a store with an ice cream cone. He was met at the door by the owner with a gun. He wrestled the gun from the owner, took it and left. The crime happened 2 years ago, he is the bread winner of his family, making $51 and hour. His daughter is 17, made highest SAT in her class and has a free ride to Grambling. His son plays football for Bellaire High School. He is 14 years old and is two years in remission of leukemia. This man was offered 2 years because of his 25 to life criminal history. I see no point in warehousing this man. I will not stop fighting until he gets probation. On the day of sentencing, I made an empassioned plea to the judge to remove the plea offer. On he day he was set to go to prison, I told God, not today. I drove that man home and now we are back at a non-issue setting. I will not stop fighting for justice, and sensability in sentencing. It is a war that requires fighting advocates.

Add your voice