What does it mean to be a criminal? This is not something most people stop and dissect very often; it is more of an arbitrary label. Most people, often implicitly, begin developing ideas and stereotypes about it from a young age. There is also a common divide in terms of criminals — nonviolent and violent offenders. But should the label really matter?

Generally speaking, a nonviolent crime is defined as one that does not cause harm to others and a violent crime does, but sometimes that is not the case. With these labels also comes the tendency to be more lenient and forgiving with those who have committed nonviolent crimes, both in terms of punishment and general perception.

Something as seemingly minor as purse snatching can be classified as violent, but many times actually violent and more harmful things are not given this label. For instance, “police violence” is a term that is heavily avoided by those on the side of the police; they tend to opt for alternative wording. 

Not only is the label of violence inaccurate in many cases, it can also lead to harsher punishments, including longer sentences, loss of rights after release, and more.

In Florida, Denard Stokeling pled guilty to possession of a gun during a robbery, which led to federal gun charges. Because he had been found guilty of three former violent charges, he faced a 15-year minimum sentence, as required under the Armed Career Criminal Act. However, Stokeling argued that one of his previous convictions, a necklace snatching, should not be considered violent. He took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that purse snatching and pickpocketing can be considered violent crimes.

A robbery of this kind — a necklace snatching — was considered violent if there was proof the victim resisted, as the attempt to overcome the victim’s physical resistance to the crime is considered inherently violent. The issue here is that with cases like pickpocketing and related robberies, there is little room to look at cases on an individual level.  

Many people feel that violent offenders do not deserve the same benefits as nonviolent offenders.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, those convicted of rape or sexual assault actually have a rearrest rate that is 20% lower than other categories of crime. Even if individuals do not agree with their actions, these are human beings in prison; a lot of the time there are underlying, untreated issues leading to the crimes that need to be addressed. Solely punishing their behavior and sending them to prison without the proper resources only creates a cycle of crime and reconviction.

According to a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice study on state prisoner recidivism, of the prisoners released in 30 states in 2005, 45% were arrested within the next year. What would the numbers look like if they had been rehabilitated before release? 

Some argue that prison expansion is the solution to overcrowding. Overcrowding is certainly an issue facing the prison system, but the only reason certain prisons are currently under capacity is because of the amount of new prisons that have been built, including those built for profit. Holding people captive in often inhumane conditions and not addressing their needs only serves to maintain the prison system.

Simply put, there should be fewer people in prisons and funding should be redirected away from prisons and applied toward rehabilitation and education. Unjustly classifying acts as violent offenses often results in longer sentences and provides the prisoners with fewer opportunities upon release. Restrictions that felons may face upon release include, but are not limited to, a loss of the right to bear arms, the right to vote, restrictions on traveling abroad, as well as the possibility of employee discrimination. With longer jail times and being set up for failure upon release, it is no surprise there is such a large prison population in the United States. 

By addressing only part of the prison population and excluding violent crimes in prison reforms, an unfair divide is being created. In order to fix the system, all of the components need to be fully addressed. Ultimately, how we classify violent crime needs to be reevaluated and addressed as a necessary step in prison reform. 

Hayden Thomas is a student at the University of Maine at Farmington, and this piece was written as part of coursework in Incarceration Nation class.


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