If We Want To Address Mass Incarceration, We Need To Talk About Violent Crime
53% of state prisons and 29% of local jails populations are by individuals convicted or accused of violent crime. If we want to address our nation's mass incarceration, we need to discuss public attitudes on violent crime.
Recently I came across an excellent graphic by the Prison Policy Initiative which had a breakdown of our nation's massive prison population — including local jails, state prisons, federal prison and other centers of detention such as for immigration, and involuntary commitment.
What became immediately clear is that despite a majority of both Republicans and Democrats agreeing that government policy on drug abuse should focus more on treatment than prosecution, that itself will not be a panacea to reducing our inflated prison population.
If we were to add up the number of convicted individuals behind bars in America purely for violent crime, those 760,000 individuals would still form the second account for the most incarcerated population in the world — behind only China.
The difficulty in addressing this is that while the circumstances that lead to violence often resemble those of a social crisis —including early exposure to violence, personal and social stress, and substance abuse (particularly when exacerbating an underlying personality disorder), the public still approaches violent crime from a punitive, moral standpoint.
For instance, as the COVID-19 health crisis forces official to confront real consequences of prison overcrowding, many states are commuting sentences or reducing jail populations, with the exception of those accused of violent crimes. This despite data that shows violent offenders are less likely to commit offenses after being released than those convicted of drug offenses or property crime.
Violent crime is a difficult conversation because unlike drug crime, it is an offense that by definition harms others; it's not individual. However if we are to view mass incarceration—including both the causes and consequences of committing crime—we need to being discussing increasing the release rate of those accused of violent crime.