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Should We Change How We Perceive "Violent" Offenders In U.S.?

  • Public perception of those who have committed crimes of violence is holding back necessary reforms. These individuals are human beings who deserve an opportunity for a better life and to contribute to society. The reality is that virtually all those who spend time in prison will be released back into society. With an improved perception may come societal and legal changes, making it easier for these people to adjust to life, making them less likely to commit a violent crime again and end up back in prison.

    Public Perceptions are Important

    Public fear about violent offenders presents a challenge to those trying to create or improve policies concerning their return to the community.  Public opinions that the criminal justice system should be more harsh have led to the enactment of laws and policies that have resulted in longer sentences and mass incarceration, especially of those who are minorities.  

    The criminal justice system is responsible for managing these offenders without unduly risking the victim and public safety or undercutting the offender’s rehabilitation or reintegration into the community.  Public opinion influences whether initiatives to make ex-offenders productive members of society will be politically and socially accepted. Public opinion shapes legislation, government funding decisions and news coverage of the issue.

    Because perception and belief become reality for most people, especially in this social media-driven era of “fake news” that we live in, the lives of ex-offenders won’t improve until public perceptions do. The reality is that violent crime happens because of a number of reasons, often because of undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, drug addiction, the side effects of drug use and the need to commit crimes to pay for illegal drugs. Mental illness and addiction are medical and psychological issues, which, if properly treated, could result in far fewer violent members of society.

    Drug Use, Addiction and Mental Illness Common in Those Convicted of Crimes

    Of the 2.3 million inmates in the country’s prisons and jails, 1.5 million would meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction, according to a study released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in 2015. Another 458,000 had histories of substance abuse, were under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the crime, committed the crime to get money to pay for drugs, had been jailed for an alcohol or drug law violation or shared some combination of these characteristics. These two groups make up 85% of the U.S. prison population, while only 11% of inmates with substance abuse and addiction disorders were treated during their incarceration. In 2006, the use of alcohol and other drugs were involved in an estimated 78% of violent crimes.

    The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study in 2006 showing than 64% of local jail inmates, 56% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners showed symptoms of serious mental illness. Earlier estimates of inmates with these problems were about 20%. A large number of these inmates served prior sentences, committed violent offenses or engaged in substance abuse.

    The 2006 MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study found that 31% of those with substance abuse and psychiatric disorders committed at least one act of violence in a year, compared to 18% of people with a psychiatric disorder alone, according to the January 2011 edition of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. Studies have shown that violence by people with mental illness can result from family history, issues stressing the person, and issues like poverty and homelessness. Substance abuse is often part of the problem. Research suggests that treatment of mental illness and substance abuse may help reduce rates of violence.

    The Belief That Someone Who Commits A Violent Crime Will Remain Violent

    Another common perception is that a violent criminal sentenced to prison will always be violent because of his or her experience in jail. Prisons are popularly seen as "schools for crime" or "breeding grounds for crime," states Stanton Samenow, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. The idea is that offenders will become more dangerous because they learn new "tricks of the trade." There is a perception that if a person spends time in prison, he or she will become an even more violent person when released.

    Dr. Samenow states he has interviewed many offenders in different prisons about whether incarceration truly makes a person worse. They stated that choices are continually made about how time is served. Some want to be criminal prison kingpins. Within the walls of the prison is just another place to commit criminal acts. Others see things entirely differently, have a different view and make entirely different decisions. They obey the prison rules and policies while staying away from criminal or dangerous acts. Disgusted with how they lived their lives, they want to change or at least not risk new charges that could extend their sentence. They get involved in programs and try to get along with other inmates and staff.

    Inmates who stay away from criminal activities remain civil to other inmates; and to avoid being seen as a "snitch" or informant, they participate in a variety of activities that do not violate the rules. They’re not interested in committing new crimes. Some become disgusted with fellow inmates who continue their criminal ways in their new surroundings behind bars. They’ve reported to Samenow that they are left alone and not pressured into more violations and crime. They find that other inmates respect them.

    An inmate chooses who he will develop relationships with, according to Samenow, and decide what type of person he wants to be. He chooses the temptations to resist. It’s not inevitable that an inmate will become a more hardened criminal or a more dangerous person because he’s in a correctional institution. Spending time in prison can be a turning point in the person’s life toward a positive direction.  He says a prison expression is, "make time serve you not just you serving time."

    The reality is that those who commit violent crimes don’t just do it because they’re essentially evil people who need to be locked up forever. They do it for many reasons, but two major issues are medical. If mental health and substance abuse issues were better addressed by society and given the priorities they deserve, the number of violent crimes could drop dramatically.