Burglary. Purse snatching. Manufacturing meth. Marijuana possession, of a certain amount. These are all examples of crimes that some states consider violent. Others include possessing a precursor chemical with the intent to manufacture methamphetamine, aiding in an attempted suicide, and trafficking in a stolen identity.
Most people wouldn’t consider any of those offenses to be violent. Yet state statutes around the country do, and they punish people more severely when they have committed a so-called violent crime. When a crime is considered violent, a conviction can get you labeled a violent offender. That often means a significantly longer sentence — even a three-strikes sentence.
Politically, being labeled a violent criminal means you get no sympathy for your plight. Almost any kind of cruelty or punishment can occur without much complaint from the public or lawmakers. Even at a time when we’re working to reduce mass incarceration, no one is talking much about releasing violent offenders.
We can’t solve mass incarceration without addressing violent offenders
Unfortunately — often because questionably violent offenses like these are labeled “violent” — those deemed “violent offenders” make up about half of the U.S. prison population. It will be very hard to reduce mass incarceration without addressing the fact that many “violent offenders” are sentenced to decades behind bars — often long beyond their actual danger to society.
Consider Minnesota, where 3,092 of its 9,849 prisoners in July 2018 were convicted of crimes considered by the state to be violent. According to the Marshall Project, many were convicted of burglary or drug crimes. Or consider North Carolina, where many “violent offenders” are convicted of things like habitual breaking and entering, white collar crimes or drug offenses.
As a society, we need to decide what actually constitutes the kind of violence that needs to be punished by serious prison time and long-term legal consequences.
Is burglary actually violent? As a criminal justice professor interviewed by the Marshall Project points out, burglary is defined as the act of entering a structure with the intent to commit a crime. That crime is usually theft, but it could be any offense. In any case, if the crime you intend is a violent one, that would be charged as a separate offense.
Some people argue that burglary is indeed violent because there is an implied threat of force and because the victims feel psychological traumatized. Yet the vast majority of burglaries don’t involve actual violence. Only about 8 percent involve any concrete threat of violence, and less than 3 percent involve an actual act of violence.
So next time you’re thinking about criminal justice reform, consider that many “violent offenders” may not have been involved in any violence at all.