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Columns : Editorial

The Fallacy of the Nonviolent Offender

Just because some convict is classified "nonviolent" that doesn't mean he is.

September 17, 2009  |  by - Also by this author


If you listen to prison reform advocates in this country, you'll hear that our state pens are full of nonviolent drug users who got smacked down by "The Man" because they were huffing up some stems and seeds in a bong.

That's the argument that a number of newspapers and political figures are using to advance the idea that we should release some prisoners early to reduce prison overcrowding and save money.

That argument is dangerous to you and the people you serve.

First, in most states, Joe the Stoner does not go to the pen; he goes to drug rehab or diversion (or he goes home because hardly anybody prosecutes stoners anymore). And everyone advancing this argument should know that to be the case: After all, they are the ones who established alternative drug sentencing in the first place.

The "nonviolent" offenders populating our prisons are not college students caught with dime bags. They are dangerous people who fall into two classes: those who actually committed nonviolent offenses and were convicted of those offenses or those who plea-bargained down from other offenses-likely violent offenses-and were convicted of a nonviolent offense.

"Nonviolent" offenders sent to penitentiaries are not nice people. They could have committed any of the following crimes and still be classified "nonviolent": burglary, breaking and entering, grand theft auto, identity theft, drug trafficking, and the list goes on and on.

And remember, these are just the crimes that got them convicted. It's not hard to imagine that the guy busted for drug trafficking was maybe carrying an illegal concealed weapon at the same time he was collared for slinging rock cocaine and maybe there's strong evidence that he used that gun to throw a few rounds at a rival. Facing an assault with a deadly weapon charge, our drug trafficker is advised by his public defender to cop a plea to selling rock cocaine. Presto! He is now a nonviolent offender.

Here's all you really need to know about so-called nonviolent offenders. In 2004 the Bureau of Justice Statistics studied nonviolent offenders exiting state prisons. Here's the highlights of that study:

  • Some 95 percent of these inmates had been arrested prior to the arrest that sent them to prison
  • About 33 percent of "nonviolent" offenders had a history of arrests for violent crimes
  • Eight percent of nonviolent offenders used a weapon during their "nonviolent" offense
  • Approximately 70 percent of nonviolent offenders are rearrested within three years

These are the people that prison reformers and bean counters want to put back on the street. You will have to clean up the mess. And it will get very messy.

Consider these two guys who were classified as "nonviolent" offenders by the legal system.

Patrick Tracy Burris-This lovely dude recently killed five people in a serial shooting spree in Gaffney, S.C. He was shot and killed by Gastonia, N.C., officers who tried to arrest him for an unrelated offense. One of those officers was shot in the leg.

Burris had a rap sheet reportedly 25 pages long, but no convictions for "violent" offenses.

Charles Samuel-Although he should have been imprisoned for life under California's three strikes law, Samuel was free on the streets of Los Angeles on July 26 when 17-year-old Lily Burk was carjacked, kidnapped, and murdered. Samuel has been charged with the crime.

Samuel's first two strikes were residential robbery and burglary. So he had two serious felonies on his record, one violent. In 2006, Samuel was charged with petty theft in Los Angeles. Even though his third strike was a minor nonviolent offense, L.A. County prosecutors could have sent Samuel away for life. But district attorney Steve Cooley has an unofficial policy of not pursuing a third strike for a minor offense because he doesn't want to be in the paper defending the prosecution of some homeless convict for stealing a slice of pizza. So as far as L.A. County was concerned, Samuel was a "nonviolent" offender, even though he had previously committed violent felonies.

The next time somebody tells you that it's a great idea to let "nonviolent" offenders out of prison, tell them about Lily Burk and the five people murdered in Gaffney. Then tell them to shut up.


Comments (13)

Displaying 1 - 13 of 13

euroautolover @ 9/28/2009 3:00 PM

Working in a halfway house and as an escort for a SVP, I know and understand the differences and similarities between violent and "non-violent" offenders. As you state in the beginning of your article, offenders sent to the pen are not "college students with dime bags." Reformers need to understand that with a drug infested lifestyle, especially on the selling/manufacturing end, violence is inevitable.

The mention of Lily Burk was especially saddening and an eye opener. Thank you for the mention.

Latif Tanner

Topgun1 @ 11/16/2009 11:00 AM

Well said. The shame is the fact that most of the media prefers to sell the poor old picked on by the police "non-violent" offender story in spite of any facts to the contrary.

Be safe.

erin @ 2/16/2011 10:46 PM

"The "nonviolent" offenders populating our prisons are not college students caught with dime bags." Actually, that's not true- I am a college student (with a 4.0 average) who was caught with LSD and Tennessee wanted to sentence me to 12 years in prison. I had no record and I AM a good person. My friends and I wanted to go camping and take LSD over a weekend. Now I am a felon and my life is nearly ruined because of overzealous people like the author of this article who aren't satisfied unless they hang every offender. Luckily for me, my parents were willing to spend $30,000 on a lawyer and I avoided prison. Not everyone has parents like I do and they end up becoming violent criminals after being incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

Kris @ 7/13/2011 1:00 PM

The united states incarcerates the most amount of people of ANY country on the planet earth, by FAR, including half a million more so than China, a country more than 4x our size and of less socioeconomic development.
Not only that, but we incarcerate a far greater proportion of people compared to ANY other country in the world, far and away.
Mr. Griffith, are you really proposing that Americans are just hugely more criminal than every single country on Earth?
I smell some ulterior motives in this article.

Brian @ 8/17/2011 5:34 AM

Erin, if you are dumb enough to try something as stupid as LSD, then your dad should have whipped your a**. If you were my kid, I would beat you till it sunk in, or I got my money back. Don't you realize that you and your friends could have killed someone, including yourselves, and then how would that set on your conscience.

Miguel @ 9/3/2011 5:17 PM

The writer of this article puts forth so many fallacious arguments that it derails the point he is trying to make.

1. "And remember, these are just the crimes that got them convicted. It's not hard to imagine that the guy busted for drug trafficking was maybe carrying an illegal concealed weapon at the same time he was collared for slinging rock cocaine..."

The operative phrase here, "It's not hard to imagine," means that the "evidence" being offered in support of the writer's thesis is pure speculation. I've got this crazy idea. Why don't we limit the reach of the criminal justice system to (a)crimes people have actually committed that (b)we can actually prove? It's not hard to imagine the tooth fairy riding a unicorn into battle against orcs. I don't know if I would offer it up as an argument in a public policy debate.

2. The actual numbers that the writer puts forth fall incredibly short of proving his point.

(a) "About 33 percent of "nonviolent" offenders had a history of arrests for violent crimes"

This means that 67% of those "nonviolent" offenders did not have such a history.

(b)Eight percent of nonviolent offenders used a weapon during their "nonviolent" offense."

This means that 92% did not.

(c)Some 95 percent of these inmates had been arrested prior to the arrest that sent them to prison.

For what type of crimes?

(d)"Approximately 70 percent of nonviolent offenders are rearrested within three years"

Again, for what type of crimes?

3. The straw man takes a beating

"These are the people that prison reformers and bean counters want to put back on the street."

The flimsiness of the statistical analysis aside, the one good set of numbers is the 8% who used a weapon. No one is protesting the incarceration of these types of offenders. The writer chooses to focus on the offenders with violent crimes on their rap

Miguel @ 9/3/2011 10:25 PM

(CONT)

sheets without noting that they are in the minority according to his own stats.

4. Misleading vividness fallacy

The writer cites two horrible stories of apparently nonviolent offenders committing violent crimes. Considering that there are one million nonviolent offenders behind bars, two is statistically insignificant.

"The next time somebody tells you that it's a great idea to let "nonviolent" offenders out of prison, tell them about Lily Burk and the five people murdered in Gaffney. Then tell them to shut up."

Applying the writer's same faulty reasoning, we could also say, "The next time someone wants to tell you how safe flying is tell them about the 49 people killed on Comair Flight 5191. Then tell them to shut up."

Faye Price @ 5/10/2012 6:25 PM

My neighbor and sister in law recently had to have a fund raiser for her 3 year old graed in by his sndchild, that was badly shaken, burned on his penis, and skull caved in by his mother's 19 year old boy friend the child almost died, had numerous surgies, and wears a helmet, and has no penis, all the man got was probation, where is the justice in that???

McCormick @ 6/14/2012 6:21 AM

@Brian
"Erin, if you are dumb enough to try something as stupid as LSD"

At what point does what we put into our bodies turn into the business of the government? It doesn't matter what the substance is, it matters that it is OUR body, and our decision. Perform a crime (or drive) while on drugs? Yes, you should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Let's outlaw nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, and then see how long we keep others out of prison. Because, hey, you've been convicted of a felony now. You don't matter to the "regular" "non-drug using" population that's so much better than you.

dan @ 3/20/2013 2:46 PM

The following paragraphs are to me very offensive. I being a non violent offender. Ive been convicted of four counts of felony heroin possession. Ive never committed a robbery b@e or assault. No violent crimes in my life. To say that its more likely that a non violent offender has possibly committed a violent crime is b.s. It is just as likely that anyone has gotten away with a violent crime. Just because ive had a drug problem in the past doesnt make me violent and there are plenty of people that are in my same shoes.

dan @ 3/20/2013 2:55 PM

Violence is ingrained in the person themselves. Not the drugs they my or may not take. Look at Matt Fougita. He was a strait a student. Star of the football teem. The all american kid. He strangled and slit his ex and left her in a marsh. He wasnt trying to score a bag.

dan @ 3/20/2013 3:04 PM

i have one more thing to add. I wasnt given the chance to go strait to a rehab. I served two years on my drug charges. I,had never even been to jail before this. Twenty seven years of nonviolent drug use. No other charges other than various drug possessions. So the next time you speculate thay a nonviolent drug offender probably committed a violent crime look more into it. Im not saying it doesnt happen all im saying is its just as likely anyone can commit a violent crime.

Adam West @ 4/9/2014 5:30 AM

These are the police officers who give police officers a bad reputation.

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