Can we reduce incarceration for violent offenses while involving crime survivors?

The left-right consensus that is emerging against mass incarceration in the U.S. has provided a beacon of hope for many who have been struggling against the growth of imprisonment over the last several decades. But as this dialogue plays out, it could be buying consensus at the cost of oversimplification. This could leave too many people behind bars and miss real opportunities to improve public safety.

For example, when President Obama became the first U.S. President to visit a federal prison, he called for a reexamination of our sentencing laws, but simultaneously said, “There are people who need to be in prison, and I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals.”

Likewise, in a 2015 opinion piece in the Washington Times, Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan called criminal justice reform a “rare area of bipartisan agreement in an otherwise sharply divided Congress” but hastened to add that “We all agree that violent, dangerous criminals should be in prison, and the cost of incarcerating them is money well spent.”

Although reforming drugs laws at the federal level, where approximately half of the prisoners are incarcerated on drug offenses, would have a profound impact there, the vast majority of U.S. prisoners are incarcerated in state systems. There, more than half of all state prisoners are locked up for violent offenses, compared to only 16% who are incarcerated for drug offenses.

Furthermore, the line between people who have committed violent, property and drug offenses is hardly a sharp one. People tend not to specialize in their offense behavior, rendering terms like “drug offender” or “violent offender” crude distinctions for policy setting purposes. Offending patterns change and nearly all people who offend as youth mature out of offending behavior as they age into full adulthood.

Fortunately, a report issued this week by Danielle Sered of Common Justice, Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration, issued a clarion call to take this issue seriously and handle it with nuance. Sered reminds us that, if we’re serious about reducing mass incarceration, we need to grapple seriously, and safely, with people who have committed violent offenses and the survivors of their crimes, “We either give up the aspiration of ending mass incarceration or we steer into the question of what to do about people who commit harm.”

She ought to know. Not only is she a rape survivor and has lost loved ones to murder, but she runs an innovative program that works with crime survivors to divert young adults accused of violent offenses from incarceration.

No one gets in her program without their survivor and prosecutor agreeing. Nine out of ten times the survivors agree, giving the lie to the notion that all survivors want is prison.

If participants commit new crimes, they are terminated and incarcerated. So far, only 8% of participants have been terminated for new crimes.

Sered argues that “any response to violence should be centered on survivors, based in accountability, driven by safety, and racially equitable” – which are the standards she sets for her own program.

It is difficult to argue that our criminal justice system regularly meets any of those standards. The system is so frustrating to crime survivors that half of them never even report their victimization. Young black males are incarcerated in America at nine times the rate of young white males. And nearly 8 out of 10 young people who go to prison are rearrested within three years.

To ensure a survivor-centered justice system, we also must re-conceive our notion of who is a survivor of violence. Contrary to popular media depictions, the profile of the typical perpetrator and the typical survivor of violent crime is the same – young, black, and male.

As Sered puts it, our criminal justice system is “very rich in punishment and very poor in accountability.”

Sered recommends eliminating mandatory sentences so courts can tailor sentences to better meet the needs of survivors and improve public safety. The report also recommends expanding restorative justice programs that hold people accountable for offenses they have committed in ways that repair their harm. And it calls for a greater investment in both victim services and public resources that address the core drivers of violence – poverty, housing instability and trauma.

For too long, policy makers have assumed that more punishment equaled better treatment for crime survivors. As we grapple with ways to reduce mass incarceration, creating a system that is survivor-centered, based on accountability, safety-driven and racially equitable holds much greater potential to improve public safety and adhere to bedrock American principles of justice than our current over-reliance on incarceration.


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