Our criminal justice system’s treatment of those who have committed violent acts needs to change, said panelists Thursday at a presentation of two new papers by the Square One Project and the Emerging Adult Justice Learning Community.
The papers “Reconsidering the Violent Offender,” by the Square One Project and “Thinking About Emerging Adults and Violent Crime,” by the Emerging Adult Justice Learning Community provide research and recommendations about combatting violence and treating those with violent charges.
“The number one factor propping these systems up now is how we detain and sentence people we call violent offenders,” said Jim Austin, one of the authors of the Square One Project’s Paper. “We have to do something about the way we do this if we want to have any hope of lowering mass incarceration.”
Many individuals are labeled as violent offenders who are not actually violent, such as Sandra Bland, who was charged for with assault for kicking an officer, Austin pointed out.
“Once you get that label applied to you, there are severe consequences,” Austin said, noting that these individuals are less likely to be released pretrial, have longer sentences, less opportunities to appeal to a parole board, and higher supervision upon release.
Those who have committed violent offenses are also usually not consistently violent, according to Bianca Bersani, an author of “Thinking About Emerging Adults and Violent Crime.”
“There’s really a lack of evidence of a violent crime specialist,” Bersani said. “Persisted engagement and violent crime is rare; violence instead constitutes a small subset of behaviors that characterize an individual’s involvement in crime.”
An individual’s violent behavior decreases rapidly as they get older, and those aged 18-25 are most likely to commit violent acts or be victimized by violence. These individuals make up a large percentage of those incarcerated, according to Bersani.
Most people who have committed violent offenses have been victimized by violence themselves, panelists said.
In Austin’s research of the Arkansas and Massachusetts Prison System, he said he found that roughly 40 percent of the people moving through this system had witnessed someone being murdered, and half of those people have witnessed someone being murdered as a teenager. Many of these people went on to commit violent acts.
“We can’t neatly categorize individuals as victims or offenders,” Bersani said. “People who commit violence often witness it earlier in life.”
Violence also affects certain communities more than others, Bersani said.
“The distribution of violence is not random, but is instead systematically concentrated and manifested in conditions of extreme poverty and structural disadvantages,” Bersani said. “As a result, individuals exposed to violent places simply encounter more opportunities for violent interactions, either as a perpetrator, offender or witness.”
Given these trends, the label of violent offender in criminal justice policies and proceedings should be eliminated, the amount of prison time for everyone, including violent offenders, should be reduced and the way violence traumatizes people and communities need to be addressed, Austin recommended.
Bersani recommended reinvesting in communities plagued by violence, recognizing the overlap between victims and perpetrators of violence, and strengthening familial and community social bonds.
You can view the Square One Project’s paper here and the Emerging Adult Justice Learning Community’s paper here.
Maria Trovato is a TCR news intern