The COVID-19 pandemic is, to date, responsible for over 91,000 US fatalities and levels of unemployment not seen since the great depression. National Social Distancing Guidelines and State Stay-At-Orders in nearly all 50 states have upended many social norms and have led to deserted streets, empty shopping malls, empty schools and college campuses, and entire companies working from home.
However, one system where the need for social distancing, large scale testing, and enhanced medical care have been largely ignored is the justice system where the dangerous conditions in prisons and jails has led to uncontained outbreaks in several facilities. Some prisons and jails have released people in attempt to allow for social distancing, but those released have primarily been those convicted of non-violent crimes.
This continues a trend in the justice system where we have all but excluded those incarcerated for an act of violence from reform efforts. This violent / non-violent dichotomy has become a matter of life or death during this pandemic, but like so many other social ills highlighted by COVID-19, it’s not new, it’s not beneficial to anyone, and as I want to discuss today, it’s a false distinction.
Contrary to popular belief, so called “violent offenders” are less likely to commit new crimes than their “non-violent” counterparts. Somewhat paradoxically, the more serious the act of violence, the less likely the individual is to reoffend upon release (less than 1% of those convicted of murder commit another murder post release, for example). Re-arrest data also shows us that a past conviction for a violent crime does not make an individual more likely to be re-arrested for a violent crime, compared to someone who committed a property or drug crime (i.e. past violence is a poor predictor of future violence). Of course, simply presenting statistics is not especially comforting; the disastrous consequences of Willie Horton’s release still haunt many people who would otherwise support early release, especially during a pandemic. But while horrific, this event and those like it represent outliers, and I’d like to explain how treatment courts can provide an alternative to incarceration, even for those convicted of violence.
It’s important to note that today, crime across the spectrum is at its lowest reported levels in 50 years, but the incarcerated population is at an all-time high of 2.2 million, with almost half of those incarcerated for an act of violence, including 55 percent (over 700,000) of the people in state prisons. A cursory glance at these numbers, or this excellent graphic from PPI would suggest that, at least when it comes to state prisons, the system is working, people who commit violent crimes are punished harshly, and those who commit “lesser crimes” are not.
However, people are complicated, and they can’t (and shouldn’t) be defined by singular labels like “violent” or ‘drug user’. An individual incarcerated for an act of violence, may have also committed a drug crime (as only the most serious crime is reported), and regardless of the nature of their crime, most of those incarcerated have a substance use disorder. Instead of incarceration, these people require treatment, support, and a rehabilitative environment such as a treatment court.
It’s true that most treatment courts cannot accept violent offenders, but looking at data from the few treatment courts that do accept violent offenders into their programs, we can see that treatment court programs both reduce drug crime recidivism as well as violent crime recidivism. Furthermore, those who commit acts of violence are just as likely to succeed in the treatment court and address their substance use disorder (SUD) through treatment as those convicted of non-violent crimes. Given that an individual must remain crime free (violent or otherwise) as a requirement to complete a program suggests that the high level of supervision provided by treatment courts is as effective at preventing violence as long prison sentences.
Treatment courts are designed primarily to reduce the burden of SUD, however programs offer additional services ranging from employment support to domestic violence counselling, including violence reduction programming, and even a restorative justice component for treatment court participants, is within the scope of the treatment court model.
For thirty years, treatment courts have been saving lives, reducing crime, and healing communities, and the data suggests that treatment courts can effectively serve both non-violent and violent offenders. During this national drug court month, I encourage treatment court professionals to take on this new challenge. By doing so, treatment courts can increase the size and scope of their impact but can also provide a roadmap for reducing mass incarceration, even for crimes of violence.
Matt Collinson is a Senior Research Specialist / Senior Program Associate working on the OJJDP-funded Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts (JDTC) Initiative at the Justice Programs Office, in the School of Public Affairs and an Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology at American University.