Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Article on parole inflames without fully informing

Here's a news article spinning a story along the traditional, tough/soft on crime axis, when really, to me, the implications are much more profound.

The Houston Chronicle ("Early release, deportation of inmate cause criticism," Dec. 4) points to a case where an inmate convicted of murder (he was the driver, not the shooter, in a drive-by shooting) who was sentenced to 70 years was paroled at the earliest opportunity and deported back to Ecuador. Always looking to grab headlines, City of Houston victim rights coordinator Andy Kahan pounced on the incident to claim the Texas prison system was too soft, that 16 years incarceration amounted to a "sweetheart deal."

Focusing the story on Kahan and the victim's family demanding longer sentences, though, overlooks the big-picture problem that's causing killers to be released earlier than they otherwise might: Texas is filling up the majority of its prison space with non-violent offenders, so when we prosecute more of those, the only way to incarcerate them is to build more prisons or let violent offenders go. Since Texas can't adequately staff prisons and jails now, building more makes little sense, so officials have little option but to parole long-time offenders with good behavior.

Two other points come to mind. First, murderers have among the lowest recidivism rates of all prisoners, so it may well be that this decision won't particularly harm public safety. Second, I'd bet that if the reporter were to check, she''d find the parole board deporting most foreign nationals as soon as they're able, often, as in this case, at 1/4 of their stated sentence.

Again, that's because with prisons overcrowded and understaffed; if you're a prison bureaucrat (or married to one, like the parole board chair when her panel made the decision to parole this offender) it makes a lot of sense from a purely pragmatic perspective to have them deported and make them somebody else's problem. Kahan says this is a "sweetheart deal" since the offender doesn't have to comply with parole conditions. But I'm sure many such prisoners would prefer to stay in the United States under parole instead of be deported.

The range of sources in the Chronicle article were extremely narrow: Kahan, the victim's family, and Board of Pardons and Parole Chair Rissie Owens. That amounts to asking three people with the same opinion, generating false controversy while framing the debate as whether the parole board should be "tuffer." Viewing the story from a systems perspective, though, instead of letting Mr. Kahan spin the story, we must ask the question, as I did in another case nearly two years ago:
in this "tough on crime" state, why would such a person have been paroled in the first place? Because Texas prisons are full, and we have to have someplace to put the thousands of nonviolent offenders sent to prison each year -- often with sentences that will last decades. So the state has to let people like [Eduardo Blondett] out to make room, or spend billions on new prison beds over the next few years. Similarly, the parole system can't chase down violent absconders because it's overwhelmed hunting five times the number of nonviolent ones.

That leaves the state of Texas with three choices: 1) process more nonviolent offenders through probation and community-based sanctions instead of prison, 2) build more prisons at a cost of several billion dollars instead of spending the money on schools and roads, or 3) keep releasing dangerous offenders to make room for new non-violent ones, which is what's happening now.
This reporter let Mr. Kahan divert her focus to a single tree and thus failed to notice the forest around her. But these flame-fanning accusations of lenience amount to only part of the story - in the bigger picture, overcriminalization and policy decisions by elected officials have created the situation where Texas houses so many prisoners, murderers must be let free to make room for petty drug offenders and small-time thieves.

So when you see a news story like this, with "victim-friendly" sources aghast at why a violent offender would be released from prison without serving their full sentence, as Paul Harvey said, now you know the rest of the story.


Anonymous said...

It is too bad we can't ship Andy Kahn to some remote island without news coverage. Gee, Grit's, don't we have archives that outline Kahn's ability to forego prosecution for what was it...a sex crime? Maybe I have mixed up with some other public big mouth who got away with a crime that would put most men in prison for life in Texas. It is this readers opinion that Kahn is a pimple on the ass of humanity. Enough said.

Anonymous said...

Parole laws have changed dramatically since the this sentence was rendered.

I am uncertain as to what "solution" to the problem the "outrage" demands.

Today, a defendant would serve 35 yrs on a 70 yr sentence for murder. Looks like the solution is already in place.

Anonymous said...

As long as decisions are made by people who have to run for reelection they will always pander to what is politically pleasing to the public who don’t see the big picture. The public wants all sorts of things but can’t afford them. The elected officials know to get reelected they have to deliver what we can’t afford regardless of the negative consequences to be paid for by the public. We have set aside millions to build new prisons but can’t staff the prisons we have. Now how much do you need going on between your ears to know this is not a wise move? We need serious term limits in for politicians so they are free to do what they know is best for Texas without fear of not being reelected. Also we would be free of political associations that sway votes. A single term system would make it difficult for big money to keep buying off elected officials. Limiting of campaign spending would also help put things on an even playing field in Texas. Very often solutions are not directly connected to the many problems we face in Texas. The political machine in Texas is all about money, not what is good for the citizens of the State of Texas. If you don’t understand where I am coming from, ask Rick Perry to explain it to you.