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The movement to decarcerate risks foundering because of its failure to grapple with so-called violent offenders, who make up nearly half of U.S. prisoners. The treatment of people serving sentences for offenses categorized as violent is a primary reason for the continued problem of mass incarceration, despite widespread awareness of the phenomenon and significant bipartisan interest in its reduction. People convicted of “violent offenses” are serving historically anomalous and excessively long sentences, are generally denied clemency and compassionate release, and are excluded from a wide array of legal reform and policy changes with decarceral aims. Keeping these people in prison for life or near-life sentences is extraordinarily expensive for state budgets, largely unnecessary from a public safety perspective, and cruel and unusual punishment from the viewpoint of international and historical standards. While the moral imperative to release those serving draconian sentences for nonviolent drug offenses is widely if not universally accepted, such efforts will ultimately be a drop in the bucket if we fail to address the 58% of state prisoners who are serving sentences for offenses categorized as violent.

Quantitative data about the low rates of recidivism for people released after serving long sentences for “violent offenses” will not alone shift the focus of our policies or politics. Rather, we need to develop a more nuanced understanding of “violent offenses” and “violent offenders” by hearing the voices of people who have been directly impacted by violence and by the system’s response to violence. These are, in many cases, the same people. Their stories are complex and human, defying simplistic narratives about innocent victims and bad offenders. Storytelling offers possibilities for reconceptualizing the stale terminology around violence and for shifting the discourse.

This Article draws on insights from the literature on epistemic injustice and criminal law democratization, together with the legal storytelling literature. It explores the power of storytelling as an advocacy tool in the slow work of person-by-person decarceration during back-end processes like clemency, parole, and compassionate release, as well as part of the broader movement for systemic decarceration. Storytelling is an important tool for advocates working within the system, as well as for abolitionists seeking to end the system. In some contexts, advocates and activists are best situated to tell these stories, but ultimately people should be given the opportunity and tools to tell their own stories.


Originally published as Edmonds, Mira. "Why We Should Stop Talking About Violent Offenders: Storytelling and Decarceration." Northwestern University Law Review 16, no. 1 (2024): 51-129.