Should America Throw Away People Convicted of a Violent Offense?

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Should America Throw Away People Convicted of a Violent Offense?

Absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction:

Therefore it destroys freedom.

The Rebel, pt. 5, “Historic Murder”

Albert Camus

Should America Throw Away People Convicted of a Violent Offense?

There has been a major emphasis in the U.S. prison system to reduce the population of “non-violent offenders” by releasing many people in this category, particularly those convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Although this is an admirable step in the direction of beginning to address the established American pattern of imprisoning its citizens, the monumental, virtually insurmountable problem of mass incarceration requires that a closer look be taken at the personal background of all prisoners, the circumstances and causes of the offenses, and whether or not they represent an ongoing danger to society. These significant issues were addressed in an article written by Derek Gilna entitled, “Justice Policy Institute Report Challenges Reformers to Focus on Violent Crimes.” It was published in the May 2016 edition of Prison Legal News.

A slight decrease in the number of American prisoners has taken place during the past few years. However, given the huge prison population in the United States – over 1.5 million according to 2019 BJS reports – it is not sufficient to acknowledge and act upon the self evident truth that the vast majority of prisoners who are being expensively institutionalized for offenses that did not involve physically harming victims should not be incarcerated in America’s reprehensible prison punishment system. Every effort should be made to reduce the “non-violent” prison population by releasing as many people as possible into beefed up parole, probation, electronic monitoring and other post-incarceration monitoring methods. However, any plan to make significant progress in addressing America’s stranglehold on international mass incarceration must take into account the fact that of the 1.5 million prisoners in the United States, a sizeable number of offenses that involved an act of violence. Compared to state prisons, federal penal institutions have a larger percentage of prisoners convicted of drug and immigration crimes. In contrast, half of the American state prison population has been convicted of a violent offense. It will be impossible to make significant progress in dealing with the bloated, expensive U.S. prison industrial complex without dealing with this huge category of prisoners.

In his highly publicized visit to a federal prison in July 2015, President Barack Obama drew attention to mass incarceration and commuted the sentences of hundreds of non-violent prisoners, mostly those convicted of drug related offenses. Looking at the enormous number of imprisoned Americans, President Obama asked a highly important question, “Can we, in fact, significantly reduce the prison population if we’re only focusing on non-violent offenses, where part of the reason that in some countries – in Europe, for example – that have a much lower incarceration rate, is because they don’t sentence people for such long periods of time?” With an automatic sentence of 15 years maximum for murder convictions, many European countries have insured that they won’t follow the American way of locking the door and burying the prisoners and the key when it comes to sentencing and imprisoning “violent offenders.” Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Cory Booker (D. N.J.) stated this. “I just want to…give you a foreshadow of the future of what we do as a society. We have labeled so many things violent crimes in such a huge way that we have got to start having an honest conversation about what really we want to do as a society…I am just saying that we have to reexamine the system as a whole.”

The Marshall Project was quoted regarding the importance of dealing with the tremendous number of people convicted of violent crimes, reporting that “simple math shows why violent offenders would have to be a part of any serious attempt to halve the number of prisoners.” The United States demonstrates its non-seriousness about drastically reducing the costly blight of mass incarceration by its exclusion of everyone imprisoned for a violent offense. There currently is no real acknowledgement of the vast differences between prisoners who committed one highly uncharacteristic violent offense, compared to prisoners with multiple violent offenses in their criminal records. A single violent offense can be caused by legal insanity or severe, adverse medication side effects. These offenses are not conscious, deliberate or premeditated. Future dangerousness in individuals who would never commit a premeditated offense is nonexistent. These cases need to be discovered, evaluated and acted upon, because of the complete harmlessness of these prisoners. Unfortunately, there appears to be no interest in the United States to differentiate between antisocial personalities who commit repeated violent acts and people who are either rehabilitated from their past or internally incapable of becoming a repeat violent offender.

There are many variables and inconsistencies in the American criminal justice system. Because of this, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) recommends that jurisdiction “standardize how violent offenses are categorized, and standardize the context of a crime so that an offense is not categorized as violent merely if a weapon is present but not used.” The most important insight about violent offenses is that one incident should not completely define a person’s entire life. People change. For the United States to become less revengeful, eye for an eye nation, sentences should be substantially reduced for both non-violent and violent offenses. Multi-decade and life sentences should not be the default setting for violent offenses, including murder. Fewer offenses should lead to imprisonment. The 6 million Americans on different forms of carceral supervision should be greatly reduced. The Court Jester hopes that the American criminal justice and prison systems will take substantial steps toward ending the inhumane practice of throwing people away who have been convicted of a violent offense. People are redeemable. A large majority of violent offenders are deserving of a second chance to prove not only that their lives are salvageable, but also that they can make valuable and worthwhile contributions to American society once again.

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