A Review of the Reality of Violent Offending and the Administration of Justice

Date01 June 2021
Published date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(4) 352 –373
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420919471
A Review of the Reality of
Violent Offending and the
Administration of Justice
Kristen M. Zgoba1 and Todd Clear2
Policy makers have recently been exploring methods to reduce incarceration. Most
current proposals for reducing incarceration exclude people in prison who were
convicted of violent crimes. This article considers violence exclusion from criminal
justice reform by examining a sample released from New Jersey’s prisons (n =
375). We assess the hidden nature of the violence in the crime through a review of
the characteristics behind the criminal label, with particular focus on the displayed
aggravation and mitigation. Postrelease outcomes for this sample are compared with
a sample released for nonviolent crimes (n = 1,185). Findings reveal people released
for violent offenses frequently display mitigation, as opposed to aggravation. Those
released for violent crimes are less likely to be rearrested than those released on
nonviolence. The degree of severity of the violence itself has no bearing on the risk
of rearrest. Accordingly, policy reform for those convicted of violence is considered.
violence, recidivism, risk, criminal justice policy reform
The United States has entered a period of prison reform, and a consensus has devel-
oped that prisons are overcrowded. With less than one twentieth of the world’s popula-
tion, the United States has more than one fifth the world’s incarcerated population.
However, this was not always the case. In 1972, the U.S. incarceration rate was com-
parable with that of other Western democracies and had been semi-stable for as far
1Florida International University, Miami, USA
2Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kristen M. Zgoba, Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice, School of International & Public
Affairs, Florida International University, 11200 SW 8th Street, PCA, Miami, FL 33199, USA.
Email: kzgoba@fiu.edu
919471CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420919471Criminal Justice Policy ReviewZgoba and Clear
Zgoba and Clear 353
back as national prison population data were collected. At the time, this stability was
explained by a “homeostatic theory of imprisonment,” which held that societies
demand semi-stable levels of punishment (Blumstein & Cohen, 1973; Blumstein et al.,
1976). After the eruption in the prison population that began in the early 1970s, that
theory was abandoned in favor of a more apt recognition of American Penal
Exceptionalism (Pratt, 2011; Reitz, 2017). This theory rests on the belief that when
compared with other industrialized nations, the United States exhibits disproportion-
ately higher rates of imprisonment, while also maintaining use of the death penalty
(Reitz, 2017). Today, the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2
million people in the nation’s prisons and jails; a 500% increase during the last 45
years of imprisonment (Carson, 2018). Today, the United States experiences what is
commonly referred to as “mass incarceration.”
For much of the last 40 years, prison growth was accepted as a necessary conse-
quence of high rates of crime. Recently, however, analyses of the connection between
crime and imprisonment have questioned the value of high rates of incarceration as
crime prevention (for a review, see National Research Council, 2014), while at the
same time recognizing a broad range of undesirable consequences of prison growth
(Clear, 2007; Western, 2007). As this kind of evidence accumulates, there is a newly
emerging consensus that U.S. prison policy has been dysfunctional and that we should
become less unique in our corrections policy. Even among the typical political divide,
there appears to be a shared critical view of mass incarceration.
As doubts about high rates of incarceration have grown, policy makers have turned
their attention to look for ways to cut the number of people in prison. A range of strate-
gies have been proposed, and many implemented, with the aim of reducing the number
of people behind prison bars (Schrantz et al., 2018). In general, lawmakers and the
public are open to reducing sentences for drug crimes and other types of nonviolent
property crimes; however, violent crimes are most often exempt from these reform
discussions (Pfaff, 2019).
Numerous criminologists have pointed out that it is difficult to make headway in
reducing mass incarceration without including people who are in prison for violent
crimes (Courtney et al., 2017; Pfaff, 2017; Wilson, 1987). People convicted of violent
crimes represent more than half of those in state prison (Carson, 2018; Wagner &
Sawyer, 2018). Insiders know that significant reductions in prison numbers cannot
occur if the people serving time for violent crimes are excluded from the conversation.
However, this has not been recognized by those who are in charge of making policy
decisions. Recently, for example, the Brennan Center published a collection of 20
essays calling for prison reform, written by prominent policy makers ranging from
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Jared Kushner (Chettiar & Raghavan, 2019).
The authors drafted passionate pleas for changing the manner by which drug laws are
enforced, the services provided to those in prison, and the support received for reentry
services. None of the essays called for a review or an amendment to the way violent
crime is addressed. President Obama, for his part, granted 1,715 sentence commuta-
tions during his presidency. The commutations were given to people serving time for
nonviolent drug offenses, but excluded individuals convicted of violent crimes. Stating

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