Criminal Justice

Should non-violent offenders be sent to prison?

While prison reform activists have long championed releasing non-violent offenders from prison, others wonder whether a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to non-violent offenders is an effective strategy to combating crime

Rise of the Issue

The public health crisis precipitated by COVID-19 encouraged government officials to rethink who needs to be imprisoned and for whom alternative punishment would be acceptable. Non-violent, low level offenders were the first to be released into home confinement until the peak was behind us. At the end of 2021, the Attorney General reevaluated and decided the extension of home confinement should be at the discretion of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). 

Many prison reform activists, having long advocated for alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders, welcomed the development as a good step towards decreasing mass incarceration. Others, however, wondered whether exonerating people convicted of non-violent crimes from prison sentences in this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach would be both fair and effective in combating crime rates.

Issue Timeline


Obama Administration Introduces Clemency Initiative

The program prioritized certain non-violent, low level offenders to have their sentences commuted or reduced by the President.

Jan. 2017

President Obama Commutes Sentences of Non-Violent Offenders

Reducing the sentences of 79 additional non-violent drug offenders just before the end of his presidency brought his total of commutations to over 1000.


President Trump Signs First Step Act

The law allowed judges more discretion in prison sentences for certain offenses and gave inmates the opportunity to earn time off their sentence by participating in certain programs.


Prisoners in Home Confinement Due to COVID-19

A large number of prisoners were transferred from detention facilities to home confinement to reduce the spread of the then new coronavirus.

Micro Issues



Supporters and opponents disagree on whether imprisoning a person for committing a non-violent crime is a punishment that is proportionate to the crime.



The two sides have polarized views on whether the cost of housing a prisoner is proportionate to the gravity of the crime when the crime in question is non-violent.



While for some, one of the goals of sending people to prison is rehabilitation, others argue that putting non-violent offenders in prison might actually make recidivism more likely.

Pro Arguments


Crime should not go unpunished.

Some believe that if someone commits a crime, they have to face the consequences. Sentencing offenders to prison time shows them that crime does not pay.


Violent offenders could avoid prison time.

Some people convicted of non-violent crimes have plea-bargained down from violent offenses. Excluding non-violent offenders from prison time means people who did commit violent crimes could avoid incarceration.


Excluding non-violent criminals from incarceration sets a bad example.

One of the goals of punishment is to deter people from committing a crime. If potential offenders know they will not have to do time if their offenses are non-violent, they are less likely to be deterred from committing them.


Incarceration can serve as a rehabilitation method.

People who get involved in crime know it could send them to prison, and still participate in it, meaning they weren’t discouraged by the mere threat of prison. Doing time might serve as a wake-up call to dissuade non-violent offenders from engaging in more violent criminal activities.


The distinction between violent and non-violent offenders is blurry.

While burglaries are often considered violent crimes, even if no one is hurt, assaults are only seen as violent crimes if they are felonies - when they involve “deadly” weapons or “serious injury” - making the distinction between the two categories blurred at best.

Con Arguments


Other punishments might be more appropriate.

Courts could be given more discretion to punish based on cost effectiveness, public interest and chances of rehabilitation depending on the case.


Keeping someone in prison is costly.

It costs between $14,000 and $70,000 per year to house a prisoner. That money could be spent on other programs and policies to prevent crime.


Releasing non-violent offenders reduces prison overcrowding.

Many facilities operate at over 100% of their capacity. Releasing the inmates that have committed non-violent crimes brings down the number of inmates across detention centers.


Suspending prison time for non-violent offenders lowers mass incarceration.

The U.S. currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world, both in absolute numbers and relative to the number of people in the country.


Incarceration exacerbates certain issues.

Being in prison can make certain mental health problems worse, make people more violent or make them cynical about the justice system.