Rethinking Violent Crime and Prison


BY LENORE SKENAZY | It’s no secret that America loves to send people to prison. We have less than five percent of the world’s population and more than 20 percent of its prisoners — which is odd for a “Land of Liberty.”

Lately it has become common to attribute our mass incarceration to the war on drugs. The conversation goes like this: “Why don’t we just release the non-violent drug offenders? That makes so much sense!”

And it does. But it will not make that big a dent in the number of people sitting in cells, says John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham University and author of the new book, “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform.” (Book titles keep getting longer, don’t they?) Surprisingly, people arrested for drug crimes constitute only about 16 percentof the people in prison. Most of the rest are there for violent crimes.


So for Pfaff the question is: Should we start releasing the violent criminals, too?

At first blush, that sounds crazy. We need to keep violent offenders off the street! But one point that Pfaff makes is that “violent offender” is a misleading term. It makes it sound as if there is a class of people who are wired wrong and incorrigible. This is wrong on two counts.

First of all, some crimes are labeled “violent” that aren’t — like breaking into a house.

But beyond that, some people are labeled “violent” who committed their crime only in the context of one particular situation. 

“You’re in a bad mood, you have a beer, you get in a fight with your friend at the bar and break his jaw,” said Pfaff. “If we’re trying to minimize future harm, some sort of anger management class might be more effective than prison.”

But prison has become our knee-jerk response to all violence, even though often this isn’t addressing the real problem.

Which is? Well, said Pfaff, “Whenever you have young men who are denied upward social mobility and the state doesn’t do a good job of preventing violent crime, these young men will engage in violence against each other. It’s as true in 19th century Czarist Russia as it is in 20th century Los Angeles. What is necessary is a change of circumstance.”

That might sound like a verse from the “West Side Story” song — “Officer Krupke, you’re really a slob, this boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job” — but Pfaff cites a current theory that looks at violence as an epidemic: A shoots B, B’s friends shoot C, C’s brother shoots D, and so forth.

“One study tied 400 shootings back to one initial shooting,“ said Pfaff. 

If we could just stop that chain at the start, so many lives would be saved — and so many fewer people would wind up in a cage. One method shown to work is a program in Boston called Project Ceasefire.

It works like this: The cops determine which gangs are responsible for the majority of the gun violence.

“Then they sit down and meet with those people and kind of give them two choices: ‘If you persist in this violence, we will crack down on you as a group, aggressively,’ ” said Pfaff. But the cops also bring in an array of social workers to help with housing, food, employment, health care. “And they say, ‘If you’re willing to put this violence behind you, we will help you build a more stable life.’ It’s called ‘focused deterrence.’ It’s carrot and stick.”

A program like this called Cure Violence was introduced in Chicago.

“And when the state cut the funding a couple of years ago, that’s exactly when the violence in Chicago began its sharp increase,” Pfaff said.

Somehow, one solitary neighborhood managed to keep its funding. And there, says Pfaff, the crime rate continued going down. This doesn’t definitively prove the program works. “But it’s worth a lot more study,” he said.

It certainly is. And so is a look at the prison guard unions. While many people are concerned about the advent of private prisons — after all, these make money on “heads in beds,” so they support more incarceration — the role of the public prison guard unions should not be ignored.

Here in New York State, said Pfaff, our prison population is down 25 percent, and yet our correctional budget keeps going up. The more guards that are on the payroll, the more potential votes for laws that are tough — perhaps excessively so — on crime. After all, jobs depend on it.

But lives depend on something else: Preventing violence, not just punishing it. Putting people behind bars ignores the cost to their families, and to taxpayers. If we want to make our cities safer, locking up violent offenders may not be the key.


Lenore Skenazy is the author and founder of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids” and a contributor at Reason.com.