The division between violent and non-violent offenses has long been used in the criminal justice system, and subsequently, in the reform of the system. In recent years, there has been growing acknowledgement of the problems with this division and the limits of reform if we continue to hold on to this binary.

This is important to note because reform efforts have largely been focused on non-violent or drug-related crimes. While the distinction is common, many of these reforms will only have a limited impact by focusing on these crimes. According to a report from The Opportunity Agenda that analyzed 50 public opinion surveys and polls:

The frequent labeling of crimes as “violent” or “nonviolent” in the public discourse may have created an unhelpful dichotomy in the minds of most Americans that reduces support for sentencing reform.

Further, they found that:

punitive sentiment has declined when the subjects are described as “nonviolent” (often coupled with “drug offenders”) or “first time offenders” or  people convicted of “low-level crimes,” that might not be the case when it comes to those deemed “violent” or “serious” or “repeat offenders.” The label       further stigmatizes an already stigmatized population. (Note: this is a direct quote, not SJM’s preferred human-centered language.)

The reform of the criminal justice has primarily focused on those who have been convicted of non-violent or drug offenses. While these reforms are needed, they are the “low hanging fruit,” but this is a short-sighted approach. The exclusion of people who have been convicted of violent offenses can only go so far in reforming the criminal justice system and reducing prison populations. We need to include those who have committed violent offenses in our criminal justice reform.

The truth of the matter is that approximately 50 percent of people incarcerated in the United States are there for “violent offenses.” This holds true in the state of Michigan as well. In order to continue to reduce the number of people behind bars, we need to include them in reforms.

In their annual statistical report, the Michigan Department of Corrections divides offenses into three major crime categories: assaultive, non-assaultive and drug. As shown below, of the almost 39,000 people incarcerated at the end of 2018, the majority were incarcerated for assaultive offenses. This means that in Michigan, when we exclude these offenses from our reforms, we are only addressing one-quarter of our prison population.

A common concern of including those convicted of violent offenses in reform is the fear of recidivism and the potential for political backlash. A forthcoming article by J.J. Prescott, Benjamin Pyle & Sonja B. Starr examines the issue of recidivism for those convicted of violent offenses, showing this fear is unfounded. Years of research has found that people convicted of violent offenses have much lower rates of recidivism compared to people convicted of property and drug offenses.

To learn more about how the distinction between violent and non-violent offenses holds us back from reforming our criminal justice system, please join us Tuesday, May 5, at noon for an online learning opportunity. Our Executive Director, John S. Cooper, will moderate a panel of experts, including

  • John Pfaff, Law Professor at Fordham University and author of “Locked In”
  • Sonja Starr, Law Professor at the University of Michigan
  • Troy Rienstra, Outreach Director for Safe & Just Michigan

We hope you’ll be able to join us. Please click here to register and get the Zoom info.


~Anne Mahar, PhD
Research Specialist