Myths About “Violent Offenders” Compromise True Safety

Unfortunately, US lawmakers have a bad habit of passing many criminal punishment policies not based on fact, but rather on fear-mongering of “violent offenders.” After four decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric, together with private prison industry lobbying for long prison sentences, we have a society that wrongly believes that people incarcerated for violent crimes are the most likely to commit further crimes if released. In reality, the opposite is true.

In a 2017 study published in the journal Criminology, the authors concluded that: “Among members of the public, a violent conviction signals a uniquely high level of recidivism risk and increases support for social exclusion, at least in the case of conventional employment roles. That signal, although strong, runs counter to statistical evidence, which shows clearly that those individuals whose most recent crime was violent are less likely to recidivate.”

The study also looked at how labeling affects people’s perceptions. The researchers found that it makes a difference whether someone is called a “violent offender” compared to being called a “person convicted of a violent crime.” The term, “violent offender,” reduces the person to having the sole characteristic of being violent, whereas “person convicted of a violent crime” recognizes the violent act as merely one aspect of a person’s life history. For decades, we have been calling people “violent offenders” — a false moniker that has infected the national psyche.

Not only is it wrong to say that there are completely separate categories of people who commit exclusively violent crimes versus exclusively nonviolent crimes, but also, many people whom we label as “violent offenders” have never actually committed the violence for which they were convicted. In Illinois alone, more than 100 innocent people were incarcerated under the rule of defamed Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, Detective Reynaldo Guevara and others, who used torture to force confessions.

Leaving aside the hundreds of innocent people incarcerated in Illinois at the hands of state violence via Commander Burge and his underlings, many people are convicted under either the laws of accountability and/or the felony murder rule — mechanisms of conviction that hold people responsible for violence when they were only indirectly involved in an act that resulted in violence, and of which Illinois’s overuse makes it an outlier in the nation.

In fact, due to the laws of accountability and felony murder rule, many people who have been sentenced under the statute that requires a mandatory minimum, life-without-parole sentence for two or more murders or murder of a police officer never personally committed the violent act for which they were convicted. Nevertheless, they are serving life-without-parole sentences under that statute, either for aiding and abetting someone who committed the violent act, or for committing a felony that led to someone being harmed, even though they had no intention of harming anyone. Unfortunately, statistics on people charged under laws of accountability are not kept.

Regrettably, a bill is now being considered that would create a circumscribed young adult “offender” parole system that excludes from consideration anyone who has been sentenced under the mandatory minimum, life-without-parole statute. HB531 limits eligibility for parole to individuals under 21 years of age who were convicted of a crime after the effective date of the bill. It leaves more than 5,000 other Illinoisans to die in prison regardless of their efforts to rehabilitate themselves.

Nearly every study ever conducted on the subject of recidivism rates as they relate to crime categories, including the Illinois Department of Correction’s own statistics*, shows that people convicted of murder have the lowest recidivism rates. Society has created false boogeymen and enacted legislation in response to a myth. This myth is now costing us hundreds of millions of dollars per year — taking funds away from education, fire departments, emergency responders and a host of other social services, the stripping of which makes our communities less safe.

It’s time to make policy based on fact — policy that truly keeps people safe and uses our limited funds wisely. It is also time to return to our ideals of everyone deserving a good education and a second chance. A good start in Illinois would be to amend HB531 to take out the mandatory minimum, life-without-parole statute’s exclusion, increase the age limit to 25 to meet the neuroscience it is based on and invest the money saved into education.

* Illinois Department of Corrections, Statistical Presentation 2004, Springfield, IL, Oct. 7, 2005.