American’s shift away from “tough on crime” comes with an enormous asterisk.
The resurgence of the idea that people in prison should be afforded rehabilitation programming is accompanied by the caveat that their crime must have been non-violent. This arbitrary distinction between the non-violent and violent is dangerous, misguided and racist, and it persists among elected officials and the public.
It can be seen in reform policies and laws over the past decade that consistently exclude people based on nature or length of sentence, except in one new law ―the reinstatement of Pell higher education grants for incarcerated students.
When the notorious Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 overturned Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people, it dramatically reduced the number of college-in-prison education programs. A fear of widespread crime dominated political discourse for generations, leaving many to buy into “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” rhetoric.
What followed was a reckless abandonment of anything other than punishment for those already locked in cages.
Assuming some “blood sacrifice” was needed for advancement in criminal legal reform, the violent and non-violent distinction is arguably the fault of progressives. We put forward the perceived ideal person worthy of basic human decency ―the non-violent offender―in hopes of overcoming the “superpredator” myth that has shaped policy making for decades.
So, with every new reform opportunity for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, all advocacy organizations universally had to grapple with how many people they could accept leaving behind.
This problematic narrative has been so normalized that you are probably thinking right now that of course violent offenders do not deserve the same programming or taxpayer dollars. You are wrong.
Even within one violence-related charge, for example―assault in the first degree―there are thousands of permutations of fact patterns that vastly change sentencing, let alone the entire grouping of charges that constitute violent offenses.
You may think there is no consequence to the perpetuation of this idea, but it means mass incarceration can never end. As John Pfaff pointed out in his book Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and how to Reach Real Reform, most of the U.S. carceral population is in state prison, and within those prisons roughly 5 percent or 6 percent of individuals are categorized as nonviolent drug offenders, while 53 percent are imprisoned for violent offenses.
It should be obvious why focusing on these offenses would keep us squarely in the top spot as the prison capital of the world.
Look no further than 2020 as a sign of the permanent commitment policymakers have to the violent binary distinction. When COVID-19 emerged, conditions of confinement were so brutal that prisons became breeding grounds for the virus. Because sentencing is so long, many individuals who have been scientifically proven to age out of crime sat in their cells awaiting certain death.
Not one governor or legislature in the country approved mass release for people who had committed a violent act. This is shocking, because it not only puts the lives of people inside at risk; but also people on the outside who are not connected directly to prisons.
While this false dichotomy persists as COVID ravages prisons and jails, the reinstatement of Pell represents a glimmer of hope. Everyone is eligible for a grant. There are no restrictions based on the nature of the offense.
Pell does not directly allow people to leave prison earlier, but the program represents a way of empowering incarcerated people and, eventually, dismantling the carceral system in its present form.
Let’s hope the universal eligibility of Pell is a first step towards that goal.
Additional reading: Pell Grants for Incarcerated Students: ‘A Long Awaited Victory’ The Crime Report, Jan. 27, 2021
Stephanie Bazell is the Policy and Advocacy Director at College & Community Fellowship – a nonprofit that helps women and families most harmed by mass criminalization gain equitable access to opportunity and human rights. Over the past two years, she led the Hill strategy to restore Pell Grants for incarcerated people. She welcomes comments from readers.