Papers from the Executive Session

James Austin, Vincent Schiraldi, Bruce Western, and Anamika Dwivedi, Reconsidering the “Violent Offender”

The “violent offender” label has contributed greatly to the punitiveness of the U.S. criminal justice system. As correctional populations skyrocketed from the early 1970s to 2014, sentence length increased disproportionately for people convicted of violent crimes. The violent offender label poorly fits the empirical reality of violent crime, distorts notions of proportionality, fails to serve as an effective predictive tool for future violent behavior and is a serious, but often unjustified, obstacle to ending mass incarceration. To reduce incarceration, a fundamental reconsideration of the violent offender label grounded in empirical evidence is necessary. Such a reconsideration would move justice policy away from a reliance on punishment and toward affirming principles of parsimony and proportionality. It would include social investment in communities and families to ameliorate the social environments in which violence arises, and the provision of trauma-informed programming in correctional settings.

Bruce Western, The Challenge of Criminal Justice Reform

After three decades of growth in the U.S. incarceration rate, we have entered a period of criminal justice reform. However, efforts to reverse mass incarceration need to address the social conditions of poverty, racial inequality, and violence in which punitive criminal justice policy has expanded. Efforts that aim only to reduce prison populations, or neglect the harsh socioeconomic conditions in poor communities of color, will fail to sustainably reduce the burdens of over-imprisonment. A new, socially-integrative, vision of community health and economic flourishing is the best way to respond to the problem of violence in contexts of poverty and racial injustice.

Arthur Rizer, A Call for New Criminal Justice Values

The U.S. criminal justice system expresses our nation’s values, for better or worse. For most of the early and middle 20th century, rehabilitation guided criminal justice policies, but in the 1970s and 1980s, notions of retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation emerged as replacements and signaled a dramatic shift in criminal justice policy. Now, as we enter an era of criminal justice reform, it is time for a new set of values. Parsimony in criminal punishment, which seeks the least coercive response, can undo the damage of overreaching incarceration. Parsimony in punishment serves the more fundamental values of liberty and limited government, which embody a distinctively American commitment to human freedom. While our history has clearly disappointed the values of parsimony, liberty, and limited government, the oncoming era of criminal justice reform opens the door to new and exciting possibilities.