Did you ever look into the eyes of a child who killed his parents or an adult who viciously stabbed a man to death? Have you spoken with hit men or former gang members who taking lives as nonchalantly as ordering food at a drive thru? The fictionalized protagonists you see on film are far from accurate depictions. In fact, violent offenders make up less than 40 percent of our jail and prison population.

All inmates need hope. Regardless of the crime, two characteristics stand out regarding the incarcerated: poverty and color. It is equally clear that the majority of people in our criminal justice system have mental health issues stemming from severe trauma, abuse, or addiction. The chart below includes key codes that illustrate the criminal profile and the justifications behind the punitive and historical indifference of society and the criminal justice system:

(E) Environment

(TEA) Traumatic or abuse experiences

(G) Genetics

Incarceration Justification Chart


Criminal profile


Institutional thinking, public perception of inmates

1. Individuals of color (G)

“They’re likely to be engaged in crime.”

2. Individuals raised in poverty (E)

“They’re lazy, entitled, and without motivation.”

3. Individuals with mental health issues (E/G/TAE)

“It’s a crutch and excuse for behavior.”

4. Individuals with addictions (E/G/TEA)

“It’s a choice; they’re morally unfit.”

5.Traumatic or Abuse History (E/TEA)

“Just bounce back; quit living in the past.”

The approaches behind these phrases were accepted as truths that were unquestioned. Historically in the United States, sentencing guidelines were indeterminate and individualized. A team of officials decided when a prisoner was ready for release.

In the 1970s, political pressure mounted from researchers, prisoner rights groups, and victims (citing arbitrariness in release dates as the charge) to fix sentencing guidelines from an individualized team approach to a determinate one. Shrewd politicians were elected by taking a “get tough on crime” approach and the war on drugs only exacerbated the crisis. Fortunately, statistics and science are teaching us to look at individualized approaches once again.

On March 5, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced President Obama’s $173 million dollar Criminal Justice Reform budget proposal. Here are some highlights from the reform initiative:

* $15 million in funding for U.S. attorneys that will promote prevention, re-entry work and alternatives to sentencing via the establishment of specialized courts (family, mental health, drug and veteran)

* $15 million in funding to federal residential treatment for drug offenders

* $14 million for state and local residential treatment for offenders

* $115 million for the Second Chance Act Grant program that is focused on reducing recidivism

In many ways, Holder’s hand was forced by external and internal factors – the untenable pace of incarceration, a conscience disquieted by the status quo, and the following statistics.

In 1970, we had roughly 200,000 adults incarcerated in the US, out of a population of about 203 million. One in 1,000 adults was incarcerated. In 2010, the US population grew to 309 million (314 million today). Our incarceration rate has ballooned to a range of 2.2 – 2.4 million. Based on more advanced data from Wonkbook, we now incarcerate one in 100 adults in this country. Drug offenses lead the way with 51 percent in federal custody and 20 percent in state facilities.

Contrary to popular opinion, juvenile justice incarceration is at its lowest rate since 1975. The Annie E. Casey Foundation noted a 41 percent decline in the last 16 years. This is largely due to our emphasis on social science.

Armed with conviction, science, and empathy, we must now broaden the narrative to include all of the factors that lead to a burgeoning criminal class stuck in an endless cycle of recidivism. Every offender is different and requires a unique approach, one that will cast a vision of a better future upon release. Acquiescence to despair brings out the worst in people; tangible hope brings out the best. I remain committed to this task and I hope you will join me in this arduous swim upstream.

Hakim Hazim is the founder of Relevant Now and co-founder of Freedom Squared. He is a nationally recognized expert in decision analysis, criminality and security.