Why Redefining ‘Violence’ Should Be a Justice Priority

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illustration by Dave Stevens via Flickr

Words and language can have a powerful impact, especially when the language is used to define a crime committed — and when that same language carries specific penalties in the justice system.

Despite a growing trend to soften punitive responses to crime, many justice-involved individuals who are “labeled” with a conviction related to violent behavior fall into a cycle that leads to harsher and longer sentences and fewer opportunities to be released, resulting in higher rates of recidivism, according to a paper published in the Marquette Law Review. 

That makes it critical for society to define “violence” and understand its origins, writes the report’s author,  Cecelia M. Klingele of the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Klingele notes that calling someone a “violent criminal” conjures up imagery of a dangerous individual, but in fact, a wide range of behavior falls under the legal definition of violent behavior.

For example, a get-away driver involved in an armed bank heist is classified as a violent offender, even though the individual may have not been involved in a violent act.

Similarly, in some states, embezzlement and selling drugs near a school zone are considered violent crimes.

In fact, psychologists and behaviorists generally agree that violence is defined as non-consensual, and involves intentional harm or aggression without cause, with the goal being extreme physical harm, such as injury or death, according to Klingele.

Moreover, Klingele observed that most violent behavior often goes unreported.

For example, a young man who gets angry and destroys a family member’s cell phone is acting out violent behavior—but is not likely to face arrest. Surely, an altercation took place, but this situation isn’t likely to result in a police arrest.

Therefore, it’s difficult to accurately measure how much of a general population is actually violent, though rough statistics say in large urban counties, “allegations of violent crime comprise roughly 25 percent of criminal arrests made by police.”

The Causes of Violence

Klingele argued that for most people who have never been convicted of a crime, it’s easy to gloss over the personal hardships and damaging environments that people come from that lead to dramatic effects on behavior.

Research suggests that “[v]irtually anyone can be aggressive if sufficiently provoked, stressed, disgruntled, or hot,” and in a criminal development sense, there are many biological and socio-economic factors that contributed to this developed behavior.

As it relates to biological factors, genes play an important role with certain disorders like ADHD, anxiety, and other mood and psychotic disorders that impact functioning and behavior. Similarly, other genetic personality traits like impulsivity, aggression reaction, and low cognitive functioning have all been linked to behavioral outbursts that can turn criminal, Klingele explained.

In terms of socio-economic factors, Klingele identified a connection between violence and those who are socially disadvantaged and resort to “brute force” as a “matter of survival.”

Prison Violence and Powerlessness

Another trigger of violent behavior originates in situations where there is “unequal power,” such as a prison environment. Violence among inmates is not uncommon, but it does not necessarily mean that the individuals involved are innately violent, Klingele wrote.

She cited the 1971 experiment conducted by Stanford University researchers which allegedly documented how normally peaceful individuals can turn violent when placed in a confined environment like a prison. That experiment involved 24 students who were randomly assigned different roles as “prisoners” or “guards.”  The experiment had to be terminated prematurely because the hostilities became uncontrollable.

Klingele also notes that inmates subjected to solitary confinement showed increased  “levels of reactive aggression in prisoners — a trait that does not disappear the moment prisoners return to their families and communities.”

Overall, Klingele wrote, “violence is not confined to those who commit obvious felony offenses against sympathetic victims.”

Understanding these nuances is crucial to ensuring the justice system fulfills its rehabilitative role, added Klingele.

“By becoming alert to the many ways in which violence manifests itself in the criminal justice context, we can better identify and reward non-violent change both in those subject to the criminal justice system, and also in those who administer it,” she wrote.

Cecelia M. Kingele is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She is also a faculty associate of the Frank J. Remington Center, the La Follette School of Public Affairs, and the Institute for Research on Poverty.

Her report, entitled “Labeling Violence,” can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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