Violent: a matter of definition

The state labels thousands of offenders violent when they've never committed an act of violence

By JULIE GRACE | October 2020

The state classifies many people as “violent” who never committed an act of violence against another person. Nick Watry is one them.

In April 2019, Watry pleaded guilty and was convicted of his third Operating While Intoxicated violation, fleeing an officer and causing property damage. He was driving drunk, his blood-alcohol level much higher than the legal limit, when he damaged a Glendale Police car and an irrigation system and struck a light pole near Bayshore Mall. No one was hurt.

At his sentencing hearing, Watry’s lawyer, who is currently one of his employers, called him “an intelligent, smart, decent, compassionate person, a hard-working person, honest to a fault, patient.” He also acknowledged Watry’s alcohol and mental health problems.

He completed alcohol abuse and anger management courses and regularly sought mental health treatment while working more than 40 hours a week combined at a law firm and a Marcus Cinema, the jobs he had before he was sentenced.

“I make no excuses for my actions,” Watry told a Milwaukee judge at the hearing. “I’ve made mistakes. I realize that I do have issues.”

“I was going through some personal, serious stuff at the time, and I self-medicated with alcohol,” Watry told the Badger Institute. “It all came to a culmination with this incident. I realize it was unhealthy.”

The incident also left him with a record in Wisconsin as a violent offender.

“To me, it’s ridiculous (to be considered violent),” Watry says. “Absurd. You can speak to anyone who knows me. The word violent would never come to mind.”

A matter of definition

The State Department of Corrections’ definition of a violent crime encompasses the FBI’s definition – murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault – but also includes many other lesser crimes the FBI does not: driving recklessly or intoxicated and causing injury or death, for instance, pointing a firearm at person, and threatening use of force.

In 2019, 18% of people sent to a state prison in Wisconsin committed the FBI definition of a violent crime. The other 82%, including Nick, were convicted of offenses the FBI does not classify as violent in its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program.

“If a crime is defined as violent in one place and nonviolent in another, it makes it difficult to interpret violent crime rates, which are key to many policy-making decisions,” state public defender Kelli Thompson said. “Also, certain categories of ‘violent’ crimes impacts certain groups of individuals more disproportionately, which exacerbates racial disparities.”

Kendell Joshua, a woman with no prior criminal history, found out that making a phone call can be a violent crime in Wisconsin. Last year, Joshua pleaded guilty to intimidating a victim, a Class A misdemeanor, for calling the victim of a crime that got Joshua’s son sentenced to the Milwaukee House of Corrections.

A record of a call from Joshua to her son in jail was the damning piece of evidence. “I called the young girl, I talked to her … She said she’s not going to put everything on you,” Joshua told her son. “Ma, you can’t say that over the phone,” the son replied.

Although she never had physical contact with the victim, a judge sentenced Joshua to a one-year probation and six months in the House of Corrections if she violated that probation.

A series of bad decisions turned Azendis Johnson into a violent offender. Johnson, 25, of Milwaukee, bought a car from a man for $800, not realizing the car had been stolen.

On Jan. 6, 2019, when officers in a Milwaukee Police squad car started following him, a panicked Johnson called the seller, who told Johnson not to stop for the police. Johnson took off and led officers on a 27-mile high-speed chase through Milwaukee before they stopped and arrested him. No one was injured.

Johnson, who has had no arrests since, was convicted July 7, 2019 of second-degree recklessly endangering safety. “I feel like I threw my whole life away just because I made a poor decision by running from the law,” he told the judge at his sentencing hearing.

Watry, Joshua and Johnson confessed to reckless and dangerous actions deserving of punishment, restitution or treatment. But none of them ever committed an act of violence against another person.

They are among the 3,542 people sentenced in 2019 for crimes the DOC considers violent. Fewer than half of those people, 1,666, committed crimes defined as violent by the FBI: 

  • Murder and non-negligent manslaughter: 120
  • Negligent manslaughter: 140
  • Forcible rape: 498
  • Robbery: 384
  • Aggravated assault: 524 

The State Department of Corrections (DOC) includes the FBI’s definition of a violent crime, which includes murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, plus many other crimes like driving recklessly or intoxicated and causing injury or death, pointing a firearm at a person, causing great bodily harm without intent and threatening use of force.

Better recordkeeping, clearer intent

This discrepancy has consequences.

“Even among those convicted of crimes, the impact of having been convicted of a ‘violent’ crime often has longer-lasting and more far-reaching impacts,” Thompson said. “Using the label of ‘violent crime’ makes communities less safe by blocking access to programming for people who would benefit from it by reducing the chances of future criminal activity.”

One solution would be to require the state to more clearly classify crime data. The state of Wisconsin reports four types of crimes to the public: violent, property, drug and public order. Florida, by comparison, has more than 100 categories, making it harder to lump crimes under the “violent” designation. Lawmakers and law enforcers are better able to make criminal justice and public safety policy decisions with better offense information.

Another solution is making uniform the definition of violent crime, which differs not only with the FBI and the DOC, but in the language of state statute. It’s worth having a consistent guideline for those who are violent and more likely to be a repeat offender, and the nonviolent, whose sentences might include treatment, therapy and training as well as jail time.

Our three “violent” offenders are excellent examples. Joshua was never sentenced to prison.. Johnson got a sentence reduction for good behavior after serving 75% of his sentence.

Watry completed an early-release program. He returned to work at the law firm and is readjusting to life outside of prison.

“When I was in prison, I saw people who are dangerous, who should definitely not be in society,” he says. “Prison can be a breeding ground for these guys to engage in more serious criminal behavior.”

Watry says he isn’t one of them. “I’m just trying to move on and put this behind me,” he says. “It’s a small enough incident to not totally ruin me,” he says.

Julie Grace is a policy analyst in the Badger Institute's Center for Oppourtunity. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

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