Defining Violence: America Needs To Reconsider Its Approach To Violent Crime To End Mass Incarceration

Now more than ever, there is widespread momentum for criminal justice reform. At the federal level, this month the Department of Justice announced its plan to phase out its use of private prisons. We are also seeing shifts at the local level in how jurisdictions are responding to crime. For example, in Washington, D.C., Council Member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) led the way for the passage of the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act of 2016, which takes a holistic approach to addressing an uptick in homicides in the nation's Capital. And during its next session, Congress will again consider a bipartisan sentencing reform bill.

While there is still lots of work to do to reform our justice systems, I am cautiously optimistic by the way the conversation has changed on these issues and some of the changes we are seeing in policy. But, I also know that with the largest prison population in the world, including a disproportionate number of people of color locked up in adult and juvenile prisons across the country, America needs significant and bold reforms to reduce the imprisonment of more than 2 million people across the country and create a system that treats people fairly, regardless of race or ethnicity.

While the nation struggles with how to address one of the greatest public policy issues in its history, a JPI report takes a new look at the issue of mass incarceration and how America responds to violent crime. The report, Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America's Approach to Violence, notes that while there is currently more support than ever for criminal justice reform, the U.S. will not be able to meaningfully lower its incarceration rate without changing how the justice system treats people charged with and convicted of violent crimes.

Debates in state legislatures and Congress around criminal justice reform are often mired down over what constitutes a violent crime and how the justice system treats violent crimes. The reality is, significant reductions in our prison and jail populations cannot happen until we rethink our approach to violent offenses. Even with all of the momentum around criminal justice reform, the latest surveys show only a one percent reduction in the national prison population, and a slight increase in jail populations.

In some places, justice reform bills have been rejected if there is a hint that someone convicted of a violent crime might benefit. The conversations on the federal and state levels, as well as recent policy reforms, have focused on reducing the incarceration of people convicted of nonviolent offenses. Yet just under half the people in prison have been convicted of a violent crime, and meaningful justice reform must include rethinking how laws, policies, and practices treat these offenses if the nation is to see sustained reductions in incarceration.

Coming at a time when there has been very little change in national prison and jail populations, Defining Violence points to bright spots that show growing public appetite for a different approach to violent crime. Many of the laws enacted that have led to high incarceration rates followed spikes in crime. But just recently when D.C. communities were responding to growing concerns around crime, D.C. Councilmember and Chair of the Council's Judiciary Committee, Kenyan McDuffie, introduced and secured passage of the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act of 2016, which adopts a public health approach to crime prevention, and does not increase justice system involvement. The bill passed the D.C. Council unanimously.

McDuffie's NEAR Act is a step in the right direction for rethinking how we approach violence in the criminal justice system. We need to be moving towards policies backed by the evidence on what works best for sentencing, corrections, and criminal justice reform. We also need to think about how the way our systems treat violence in context with larger social policy discussions. McDuffie's use of a public health approach makes the right investment in protecting our communities against violence and crime.

Along with an increasing reliance on public health approaches to violence prevention, there are other bright spots around efforts to reduce the incarceration of people convicted of violent crimes. These include, significant reductions in juvenile confinement for violent crimes; reforms spurred on by the Supreme Court around juvenile life without parole that are allowing people convicted of violent crimes long ago to finally have a chance to be released; broader reforms being offered to parole that make decisions less reliant on the offense; and law changes that are chipping away at long prison sentences for violent crimes, including mandatory minimums.

These examples give me hope that we can build on the current momentum for criminal justice reform. To achieve more significant and meaningful reform, Defining Violence makes a number of recommendations for reducing our prison populations, such as: increasing prevention and intervention approaches to violence, reducing the number of offenses that result in incarceration, and using risk assessment tools in decision-making. By rethinking America's approach to violence and the way the justice system treats violent offenses, we can significantly reduce our prison and jail populations and make our communities safer.