Questions About Violence and Mass Incarceration

More than half of the nation’s inmates are serving time for what are classified as violent offenses. Does that mean that they can’t be safely released? Josie Duffy Rice questions the definition of “violent crime.”

It’s a commonly held belief that mass incarceration is a direct result of the war on drugs—that most of the people in prison have been locked up on charges of drug possession or drug dealing. This is not true, writes Josie Duffy Rice for Slate. In state prisons, with 84 percent of the nation’s inmates, more than half are serving time for violent offenses. In only 17 percent of cases is the most serious offense is a nonviolent drug crime. If we want to cut the prison population significantly, we’re going to have to release a whole lot of “violent criminals,” Rice writes.

The nature of a violent offense differs between states and even counties, and the crimes included in this broad category are not always intuitive. In Washington, D.C., yelling at a police officer has been charged as a violent offense. Until recently in California, burglarizing an empty house could be considered a violent act. Even the most progressive prosecutors campaign on cracking down on violent offenders. People with violent offenses on their records often have trouble getting access to diversion or treatment programs. It’s almost impossible to pass a piece of criminal justice reform legislation if it could benefit violent offenders in any way. Rice asks several questions about how violence should be defined. Among them: Is violence a permanent and immutable condition? Is violence always physical? What if a person is harmed and hurt and scared but never touched? Should those who are deemed violent be condemned forever, or are there violent people wasting away in prison cells who deserve our mercy?