If you want to "send a message," rent a billboard. That's not the purpose of legislation, prosecution powers, parole decisions, or other functions of the justice system, which must be judged instead IMO by public safety outcomes.
In fact, whenever you hear a politician of any stripe calling for government to do something to "send a message," you can be pretty sure that whatever they're proposing will do more harm than good. That's true in nearly every instance, across the political spectrum. Such rhetoric shows the speaker has allowed their public relations goals to supersede their public policy goals. Reported Austin's KEYE-TV (3/18):
A judge has sentenced a woman described by Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as a "serial drug dealer."So according to John Bradley, the parole board sent the wrong message to Ms. Burke. Her recidivism sent a message about the parole board to him. So he pushed for a 35 year sentence for a pathetic, penny ante meth addict to send a message to the parole board about its "policy of early release," with KEYE as his eager accomplice.
Regina Ann Burke, 44, of Manor pleaded guilty to two counts of delivery of a controlled substance.
The court gave Burke 35 years in jail for the crimes. She had previous drug and burglary convictions from other Texas counties as well.
In October and December of 2007, during an undercover narcotics investigation by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, Burke delivered methamphetamine to an undercover officer.
The transactions took place in the parking lot of the Round Rock Wal-Mart on I-35.
On a video released by the Williamson County DA, Burke can be heard complaining to a police interrogator that the DA's office was treating her like a major drug dealer.
Williamson County DA John Bradley responded in a written news release "[t]his case should make it obvious that the Parole Board’s policy of early release has given this drug dealer the wrong message.”
That's a lot of message sending! But ignoring all the "messages" for a moment, what are the actual, real-world outcomes?
We already know why the parole board is releasing low-level offenders more frequently when they become eligible: The prisons are so overstuffed they don't have room for actually dangerous offenders, much less folks like Ms. Burke.
Texas prisons have 155,000 beds but release 70,000 per year, with a roughly equal number coming in. Our existing prisons are shortstaffed and there's little evidence TDCJ could find more guards at current pay rates, even if the state spent the billions necessary to construct new ones. As I've written previously, all this message sending by Mr. Bradley and his ilk has led to unsustainable prison growth rates:
from 1978 until 2004, the Texas prison population increased 573% (from 22,439 to 151,059), while the state's total population increased just 67% (from 13.5 million to 22.5 million).But even that's not tough enough, so Bradley will send a message to build more prisons by pushing for ever-longer sentences for non-violent offenders. Where does it stop?
That's right - a 573% increase in prisoners and a 67% increase in population over the same period.
The TV news story gives no background, but I also wonder about how this woman got caught up in an undercover bust in the first place - was she targeted by the Williamson County Sheriff to "send a message," or did her activities come up as the result of routine investigation? I'd not be surprised a bit if it's the former. Was she selling drugs to others, or did the undercover officer befriend her and ask her to "score" as a favor? The latter method was a practice that allowed undercover cops in the Tulia-style drug task forces to rack up large numbers of low-level busts.
To me, this is the type of defendant who could do well under a stronger probation/community supervision regimen, like Judge Cynthia Kent's day reporting center in Tyler, which requires offenders to report daily, get a job, and comply with stricter controls than the monthly check-in typical of most probation supervision. For that matter, she's exactly the kind of person for whom drug courts were created.
But Mr. Bradley wants to "send a message" (and issue a press release, and get his name on TV), so instead of helping her turn her life around, get a job, pay taxes, and contribute to the community, taxpayers will just incarcerate her for the next 9-35 years, at a likely to rise cost of more than $16,000 (in 2007 dollars) annually.
Even worse, from a public policy perspective, they might have to release someone even more dangerous to make room for her, like happened with this guy.
All this message sending is getting expensive, and it's harming public safety. I think we can safely say at this point that "sending a message" is not the strong suit of the criminal justice system. Perhaps that's because its purpose is, you know, securing justice, not getting the DA's name on the local TV news.
RELATED: 60 year sentence in Williamson County for multiple DWIs.