NFL Players Coalition, Thank You but I Have One Small Suggestion

Why reform should include so-called “violent” criminals too

Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash

This letter is to the “Players Coalition members, specifically Doug Baldwin, Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins and Benjamin Watson.

First, thank you so much for lending your celebrity to the cause of Criminal Justice Reform! I am a formerly incarcerated criminal justice reform activist and I can’t tell you how much of a difference it makes when people of your stature lend your voices to the cause.

Regardless of if you listen or ignore me, I want you to understand that I will support and fight for the reforms you suggested, they are good ideas and I hope President Trump will take them seriously.

That said, with respect, I have just one plea, as you move forward with this campaign, please don’t limit your call for clemency and mercy to just those people convicted of a nonviolent offense.

Non-Violence Sounds Great But What If It Is An Inaccurate and Counterproductive Label?

So, three times in your call to President Trump, you mentioned that you wanted relief but only for people sentenced for a non-violent crime (here is one example):

I certainly understand why this would seem to buttress the case for clemency for many of the folks you are fighting for. But, there are real problems with endorsing the distinction between violent and nonviolent criminals.

First, violence is often a political distinction. Many crimes which we would not consider to be violent are labeled violent in statutes. For instance, a getaway driver could be charged, in many jurisdictions, with manslaughter or as an accessory to murder if one of his co-conspirators shot someone during the commission of a robbery.

More recently, we have seen examples of where people who were simply present, or part of the chain of agency, when someone else overdosed being charged with a violent crime. Very often, we have seen online crimes being labeled as violent crimes.

Second, it is even crueler to take this label and assume that it means that someone is “forever violent” and, when we refuse to consider so-called violent criminals for relief, that is exactly what we are doing. Generally, people in this category have some of the lowest possible recidivism rates and are known to “age-out” of violence, as John Pfaff explains in his book Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How To Achieve Real Reform (p.190-191):

“‘Violent offenders.’ We use that terms a lot, but we shouldn’t. Of course, there are people who merit the term…For almost all people who commit violent crimes, however, violence is not a defining trait but a transitory state that they age out of. They are not violent people, they are simply going through a violent phase. Locking them up and throwing away the key ignores the fact that someone who acts violently when he’s eighteen years old may very well be substantially calmer by the time he’s thirty-five.”

We also are guilty of ignoring the larger personal and societal contexts in which violence occurs, preferring to label “offenders” and turning them into simple binary representations rather than addressing the deep problems that give birth to their violence:

But Shouldn’t People Get Credit for Not Choosing Violence?

You might be asking yourself why shouldn’t people be given credit, or earn relief, for avoiding violence?

As mentioned before many people sentenced as violent are not actually violent (or at least did not commit an act of physical violence against another human being person to person).

Also, many people who did commit violent acts were not sentenced for violence — as the result of lack of evidence or because of plea-bargains — and violence (particularly in the context of drugs) itself is almost always a question of context and of bad or good luck which is why many criminologists and sociologists frequently refer to the “Myth of the non-violent drug offender.”

Even more importantly, when you choose which people to provide relief based on the distinction between violence and non-violence you create pressure for even more excessive punishment for those labeled as violent. n essence, you create a caste of criminals for whom it is acceptable (almost necessary) to treat in brutal and unforgiving ways.

In addition, by creating a threshold at which relief is possible you incentivize lawmakers and prosecutors to circumvent the intent by simply insisting on coding more and more crimes as violent and insisting that all charging documents — even in plea bargains — retain charges that carry the legislative label “violent.”

In other words, in the attempt to reward some folks you make things much worse for others and we see this in legislation like SRCA and SITSA every week (we will provide relief for some “offenders” while increasing and making harsher the punishments for those “offenders left behind.”

My Request Is A Simple One: Just Erase Non-Violent From Your Requests

Functionally, you can’t solve mass incarceration without addressing relief for the problem of violent crime:

So, while I will inevitably support what you are doing, I am respectfully asking you to please…pretty please…just stop using “non-violent” as a qualifier on the reforms you are asking for the President to enact.

I am not saying don’t focus on people who are serving for a drug offense.

I am not saying don’t focus on people who deserve compassionate release because of age or length of sentence.

I am only saying the terms “violence” and “non-violence” have become poison words that have real world effects on real people.

Language matters

Thanks again for everything that your group is doing to help the criminal justice reform project move forward!

Josh is the co-host of the Decarceration Nation podcast and is a blogger and freelance writer who writes about criminal justice reform, television, movies, music, politics, race, ethics, and more.