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.