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May 2019 | Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy 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.

Experts - James F. Austin
James F. Austin BFA Institute
experts - bruce western-min
Bruce Western Columbia University
Experts - Vincent Schiraldi-min
Vincent Schiraldi Columbia University
experts - anamika dwivedi-min
Anamika Dwivedi Columbia University
Percentage of Boston Reentry Study respondents who report exposure to violence and other trauma in childhood by violent or nonviolent conviction (N=122).

The sample is divided into two categories: respondents who were incarcerated for a violent offense and those incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. A violent conviction only marginally (not consistently significantly) discriminated between those exposed to any type of trauma in childhood.

Reimagining the Justice System's Approach to Violent Crime

The Square One Project joined the Emerging Adult Justice Learning Community to present new research and host a conversation about the need to reconsider the concept of the “violent offender” in order to significantly reduce incarceration rates and prevent crime.

paper inner - 5050 - bruce-min
Demonizing people as violent has perpetuated policies rooted in fear rather than fact


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Policymakers should make pretrial, prison classification, and parole decisions without the violent offender label

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Shorten prison sentences and lengths of stay for people convicted of violent offenses

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Make significant and lasting investments in social policy for communities challenges by violence and provide trauma-informed care and restorative justice options

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