Friday, March 14, 2008

The View from Prosecutorlandia

The last post about prosecutor attitudes inevitably led me to visit the Texas District and County Attorney Association's user forums, where I've unintentionally neglected to check in for a while. Here are several recent, noteworthy items:

Parolees = Murderers?
Though 70,000 people leave Texas' prisons each year, most of them on parole, to read this discussion string you'd think they were every one murderers, particularly in the comments responding to the initial "horror story." BTW, here's the "horror story" posted by a prosecutor from Waxahachie: A guy who stole a car in 1991 and was a professional burglar by 1993 spent time in prison, got paroled, then committed a new offense in 2005 - an "accident causing injury or death" (I'm guessing it was "injury" since he was paroled so soon). On his most recent charge:
Now I've got him in his 6th county, for evading with a vehicle. Routine traffic stop that he turned into Death Race 2000, running stop signs and cutting across highway medians. Why? Because he had a parole violation warrant, of course.

But he's not a threat to the community, right?
What do readers think? He was on parole for an "accident," albeit a serious one, and fled because he didn't want to go back to prison. There's no evidence he'd gone back to burglarizing homes or stealing cars, and he's likely nearing the age when statistically antisocial behavior declines. Does this criminal record - most of it at least 15 years old - make him a "threat to the community" that justifies paying his room, board and health care for the next however many decades, or might other correctional approaches benefit society more? Clearly this ADA thinks prison didn't reform the fellow the last time. Let me know in the comments whether you agree this qualifies as a "horror story."

The rest of the string so far nearly immediately devolved into silliness and hyperbole, with two different prosecutors equating the above defendant with intentional murderers and copkillers. (I think that's one of the reasons I haven't visited the DA's user forums for a while. I don't watch Nancy Grace, either.)

Juking the Stats
Another telling string finds our prosecutor friends fawning over a column by Thomas Sowell arguing that incarcerating one in 100 US adults is a good thing. We find the usual pedantic complaints by Williamson DA John Bradley who decries "pretend conservative[s]" who oppose mass incarceration (Psssst ... note to Marc Levin - I think he's talking about you!). But we also discover a more thoughtful, first-order question about whether anyone, pro or con, can trust existing criminal justice statistics:
Unfortunately, the "playing with statistics" Sowell mentions is not limited to those who oppose incarceration, but is also actively done by those who favor it. In my government experience, 'juking' stats was like steroids in baseball -- it seemed like everyone did it and everyone justified it by pointing out that everyone did it, even while denying that they themselves did it. To paraphrase, "There are lies, there are damn lies, and there are the other guys statistics."

Part of the problem is that if you can't trust the statistics, then how can you base rational policy decisions on them (one way or the other)?
Damn good point. If you happened to watch the TV show, "The Wire," that was a central theme. In that show, it was also the kind of opinion, when uttered too loudly in law enforcement, that earned you an early retirement party.

A Simple Equation?
In the same string about Sowell's column, prosecutor Bob Cole, who elsewhere says "I have been accused by some of thinking that Joseph McCarthy was a liberal," declares forthrightly:
Why is this simple equation so difficult for some outside of our profession to understand?

Bad guys in jail + strong sentences = lower crime rate

Nothing too complicated about that. What did I miss?
Hmmmm, well Mr. Cole, perhaps it's because everyone else sees lots of real-world situations where that equation doesn't describe what's actually happening around them. Mostly, Cole's equation gives too much credit to the actions of law enforcers for the reduction in crime rate over the last 15 years, which has more to do with a cyclical decline in the number of young people, IMO, than recent trends toward mass incarceration.

Though we're incarcerating more people, a majority in prison committed nonviolent offenses, and a smaller percentage of serious crimes than ever these days are actually solved. Some criminal activity is basically tolerated. Drunks and addicts who enter prison but receive no treatment leave - whether two years down the line or 20 - with the same addiction problem that caused their original offense. He's also missing that 70,000 inmates leave Texas' prisons every year, out of 155,000 total beds, and that even if we built more prisons, the state can't find enough guards to staff the ones we've got. So how would it be physically possible to keep them in prison longer?

Finally, he's missing that every US state experienced crime reductions over the last 15 years, largely because of demographic trends (fewer young people combined with more immigrants led to a reduction in the demographic subset most responsible for crime) but Texas, which incarcerates the largest percentage of its residents in the nation, saw a SMALLER decline in crime than other states. That result just doesn't match his formula.

What other variables are Mr. Cole's "simple equation" missing?

Prosecutors as cultural critics
Finally, I was interested to see this string where prosecutors discuss the TV series "Dexter," about a serial killer working in a criminal forensic lab who only murders bad people who get away with their crimes. Naturally, some thought the show's popularity represented affirmation by the public for their own pro-death penalty, anti-appeal predilections:
his show reiterates the fact that a lot of people feel justice when the most heinous criminals receive the death penalty. And on the show, there are no trials, no 15 years of appeals, and no last minute "come to Jesus."
Another suggested that the show might undermine the credibility of law enforcers and the law generally with the public:
I find it somewhat amusing that Dexter is being run by CBS, home of CSI Miami. The premise of CSI Miamiseems to be that the bad guy can't hide from the lab's crack forensic scientists while Dexter, a forensic scientist for the Miami Crime Lab, seems to be untouchable.

I know the show is just entertainment, but it bothers me to make type of hero from a man who kills other, no matter how deserving the decedents.
But a more astute cultural critic recognized that the aforementioned discomfort was actually the point of the show's perverted premise:
I think the show does a good job exploring (in an entertaining way) our society's curious mix of love for, and revulsion against, violence. On one hand Dexter is is carrying out a rather crude form of "justice" by killing people who "deserve it." On the other hand, he enjoys his task all too much (in his odd emotion starved way) and does things like mutilate bodies and keep "trophies" of his kills.

If we are going to have a death penalty, why not have someone who *enjoys* killing do the job? Imagine hearing the following testimony: "I was happy when the perp went for his gun, because it gave me legal justification to blast his brains out. What a rush!" No crime, perhaps, but that just makes it even more troubling....

If thinking about such things bothers you, I'd suggest skipping the show.
That's certainly what I did, even though I don't mind thinking about such issues. I watched the first 20 minutes or so of the pilot, then quickly decided there were better ways to spend my time.

UPDATE: Reacting to the first item in this post, another prosecutor on that string poses the question:
I wonder if Grits has ever had to respond to a group of voters about why he thinks guys like that should be let out on parole. The fact that a guy that got 155 years in prison in 1993 was paroled before 2005 doesn't seem to have registered.
Answer: Of course I've explained my position on this to voters, many times. The answer is simple, if you're honest about it. We've filled the prisons up with nonviolent offenders to the point that we don't have room to house dangerous ones. This guy got 155 years for nonviolent offenses.
(The fellow tries to say I downplayed the criminal history, but I linked to the full description on their site.) I recently wrote about a fellow who got 60 years for meth possession. But the length of sentences for nonviolent offenders has little to do with future dangerousness. So the parole board is making the utterly rational decision to release such folks so there will be room to house people who are actually predatory.

Since, as a practical matter, the state can't staff the prisons we've got, pushing for super-long sentences or calling for INCREASED incarceration of nonviolent offenders - these prosecutors' mantra - in practice amounts to a call to let more violent offenders back onto the street. I think that stance harms public safety more than it helps it.

23 comments:

wolf said...

The real horror story is prosecutors and the public believing that sending so many people to our criminal colleges(prisons) actually helps the crime problem. This reactive approach to crime guarantees that there will be an endless stream of new criminals. IMO criminals are not generally born that way. Our society has created a culture for the growth and development of criminal behavior through conscious underfunding of education and social services. To then design punishment policies to deal with the logical consequences of this dysfunctional social system only insures future problems. Perhaps one day there will be an honest attempt to explore the origins of criminal behavior and real life responses based on reason and logic rather than impulse and revenge.

Anonymous said...

Prosecutors should be required to spend a lot of time in prison before being allowed to express an opinion about punishment.

It is very difficult to make one's way successfully in our society. Note the number of folks under the supervision of the State. Recidivism results from parolee's having even more barriers to success when they have already demonstrated difficulty in making their way in society.

Clearly people need help they're not getting. Instead, we harm them beyond repair and feel justified when they run away from the possibility of more prison time.

Prosecutors are society's sadists!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Prosecutors are society's sadists!"

IMO that goes WAY too far; there are many TX prosecutors I respect and don't think are "sadists." I've known others, though, for whom the label seems unavoidable.

The problem is, just like with bad cops, sadistic prosecutors aren't the norm, or even close to the majority, but when they crop up they're too frequently TOLERATED by their peers, and it doesn't take but just a few bad actors to give an entire institution a bad reputation - witness the TYC debacle if you don't believe that.

Barry Green said...

As a long time reader of the TDCAA message board, I can promise you it provides the most shocking entertainment this side of "Nancy Grace Live."

Anonymous said...

wolf wrote: "This reactive approach to crime guarantees that there will be an endless stream of new criminals."

For prosecutors, that's called job security. They ain't in the business of ending crime. And good, because they aren't smart enough to understand it anyhow.

Crime is a political problem that, to solve, will require a political will that we are nowhere near having. It will require us to stabilize the living conditions of the poorest among us. This means guaranteeing a minimal subsistence level for every American family that would have to include food, housing, physical and mental health care, and education. Then, and only then, will we see any meaningful reduction in crime.

Anonymous said...

"This means guaranteeing a minimal subsistence level for every American family that would have to include food, housing, physical and mental health care, and education. Then, and only then, will we see any meaningful reduction in crime."

I disagree. I know plenty of criminals that have their basic needs met including those you've listed. The problem with your analysis, IMHO, is it's failure to include that people want tangible things beyond those you've listed and they are willing to cut corners (read as commit crimes) to obtain them.

Anonymous said...

By anonymous (3.14 12:17): "Prosecutors should be required to spend a lot of time in prison before being allowed to express an opinion about punishment."

Do you really believe that? I notice that you express an opinion about punishment immediately after making the statement, and wonder how much time you have spent in prison before expressing it?

Whatever you may think about the root causes of criminality, you have to recognize that police and prosecutors are not in a position to do much about it. They do have the ability to offer opportunities for criminals to rehabilitate to a point, with community supervision and other alternatives to incarceration, but when was the last time you heard of a DA getting kicked out of office because he wasn't offering enough probation? You show me a prosecutor who tries to avoid sending people to prison and I'll show you a politician who's going to have an opponent in his next election.

Whether a better education system or an expanded welfare state would prevent crime is debatable, but prosecutors aren't given the authority to force the schools to teach better or to make sure there is a chicken in every pot.

And the idea that prosecutors don't care about the crime rate because it gives them job security is ridiculous. That's like saying that teachers want their students to stay ignorant--after all, i fthe kids grow up stupid, they'll have stupid kids of their own and the public education system can demand more money because the kids are all low-performing.

And what is so difficult about making one's way in our society. We are having huge political battles about what to do about all the people who want desperately to enter our society. If it was so hard to get along here, people would be leaving, not sacrficing everything they have to get here.

At what point does it become the criminal's fault that he or she is a criminal? When you become the victim?

Anonymous said...

"At what point does it become the criminal's fault that he or she is a criminal? When you become the victim?"

For drug crimes who's the victim? In prostitution? In gun violations (nonviolent)?

All your talk of victims assumes there is one, and for many and maybe most crimes there just isn't a victim. So at what point does it become society's fault for sticking its nose in people's business when nobody is being harmed?

Anonymous said...

Don't you feel a bit dirty claiming that burglary of a habitation is not a serious crime?

There are dang good reasons that burglary of a home is a much more serious crime than theft, fraud, etc. What do you think happens to the homeowner when she gets home, or wakes up? Also, when you break into someone's house in Texas you just created a situation severe enough that the resident has the right to use deadly force. Burglary is deadly conduct, and is treated accordingly.

Sometimes good people do bad things... but there are also bad people who do bad things. There is no rehabilitation for those bad people.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I didn't say burglary of a habitation is not a serious crime, I just think that rape, murder, etc., are MORE serious. From the prosecutor's account, this guy spent about ten years in prison for that offense, all told, and there's no evidence he took up the practice again once he got out. That's not a light sentence at the end of the day, IMO.

Anonymous said...

I have worked within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for over 26 years now and I hope that I have learned a little bit about crimonal behavior.
If the guy in the first post is still running from the cops at this stage in his career, he probably hasn't done enough time yet to "get his heart right". What I mean by this is that the 65th legislature had it right when they mandated that certain criminals do a lot of time; ie;20 years before parole eligibility. I know that this guy wasn't a "violent" criminal but evidently he needs to do more time to get the message.
Scott, I generally agree with you about 90% of the time, but, ther are some folks that are non-violent but just dont "get it" until they get older and have done some time. Also, there are some non-violent criminals that the communit is just plain sick and tired of dealing with within the community based system and they just need to be snt away for a while.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So how do you do that, 9:44? If guys like this get a 20 year minimum, but we're releasing 70,000 inmates per year now and can't staff the prisons we've got, how is what you're saying sustainable or possible?

Prison till he "gets it" may sound like a solution in theory, but if it's impossible to accomplish from a practical perspective, IMO it's time to strengthen community supervision instead of assuming prison is the ONLY long-term option for the guy.

Prison's easier for some people than getting a job, paying their bills, and getting their life right. I think focusing on those outcomes generally generates better results and in many cases constitutes a more serious "punishment" than does incarceration, where they enjoy "three hots and a cot," as the saying goes.

Prison didn't change this guy's attitude before. What makes us think next time will be different?

Also, I'm not saying the guy doesn't deserve prosecution for the car chase, parole revocation, etc. I'm saying this hardly qualifies as a "horror story," and that the story speaks more of the failure to adequately support community supervision than it does the effectiveness of prison.

wolf said...

If prisons were about getting a job, paying bills and getting life right, there would be a dramatic reduction in recidivism. Imagine a guy fresh out on parole who is actually ready for the outside because inside wasn't that much different. It could be done and would have helped the guy in question. However, since the emphasis is on long sentences, and not on reason or logic, his chances of being helped inside were close to zero.
Each year 70,000 people leave prison, most of them unprepared for real life because prisons policy is not in the hands of social service professionals. Instead, politicians talk "tough on crime" to get reelected, and allow a prison system to exist that is flawed and badly in need of repair. The consequences for john Q public of the State releasing dysfunctional people should cause widespread outrage.But I guess that's not sensational enough to merit attention.

Anonymous said...

Scott, I enjoy you writing but there is one point I consistently disagree with you about, and that's that a lot of these "nonviolent" offenders are harmless, and no threat to society. I was locked up for 10 years in TDCJ with a lot of these so-called "nonviolent" offenders and most of them were very violent, they just didn't get caught or convicted of those violent crimes. There's a bunch of drug users who were burglarizing and robbing to support their habit in TDCJ and I sure wouldn't want them out on the streets again, rehabilitated or not. I've got family I care about and to know that some of these nonviolent offenders are out would give me the heebie jeebies.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

First, I don't think I ever used the word "harmless." The parole board evaluates conduct in prison as well as the original offense, and in this case they chose to let the guy out.

As I mentioned before, it's not enough to say "incarcerate them ad infinitum." The prisons are full, there aren't enough guards, and there's no place to put them if you also want murderers, rapists, child molesters, and others convicted of more serious offenses to serve long terms.

I don't dismiss property crime, I just don't think it's as serious as killing somebody, and don't see that it's possible or fiscally wise to just lock every thief up forever. Some sort of stronger community based supervision, IMO, is the only rational option.

Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Sadly, All of the criminal justice systems are designed to "close the barn door after the horse gets out". It is a REACTIVE plan, not proactive. I have read all these comments and I think this is one the most important issues facing our nation today. We are the largest penal colony in the world and Texas is at the top of the list! We, as a society, are reaping the the mistakes of poor education, racism, classism and poor government. Unlees this is addressed, the prison system of the next generation will outnumber those in the "freeworld". The single, long-term effect of long and/or multiple prison terms is a more practiced offender. The recent legislation to provide some reentry programs, is a good sign, but only a drop in the bucket. In Texas, not only are programs few and far between, conditions are akin to torture and institutionalized slavery. Not a productive begining for rehabilitating minor offenders. I would not be surprised that people who are in on non-violent offenses are angry and violent. If you treat people inhumanely, they will respond inhumanely. This holds true for the staff in the whole system. They are treated very poorly. In a rounabout way I'm back to the subject. After law enforcement, the judicail branch is the next and most important step in this labyrinth. I have heard of da's and judges scoffing the idea of using or increasing the drug/alcohol rehabitlitation progams. The majority of crime in Texas, stems from this issue. Legislation needs new mandates to guarentee that offenders get help, before they are permanently harmed by the system. Families are as important to this process as inmates. This is frequently ignored.

Too Old To Worry About It said...

Let's see; to fix the system we need to strengthen community supervision, build and staff more prisons, fund a public defenders office, hire better police officers and train them better, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Oh yeah, let's fix the health care system, provide subsistence living for the impoverished, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Everybody has a solution, but no one has a solution to pay for the solution, that will be acceptable to the payers. I wonder how long before "The Rise And Fall Of Western Civilization" will top the bestseller list.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Too old to worry about it, the problem is my granddaugher is too young for me not to worry about it!

Besides, my "solution" would be to strengthen community supervision (including shortening terms and boosting field oversight in the early years) and simultaneously SHUT DOWN some prisons, which at least on paper IS a solution that (at least partially) pays for itself.

I don't believe it's practically possible to staff new or even current prisons at existing pay rates, nor politically possible to increase pay enough to draw more quality recruits.

Bottom line: For every dollar Texas spends on community supervision we spend 9 on bricks and mortar prisons. Shift that ratio to 2-8, and it would make a big difference, even within current resources.

State government alone spends $17 billion per biennium on corrections, so it's not like there's not money, it's just being misspent on the wrong priorities, IMO. best,

Too Old To Worry About It said...

Grits, I also "don't believe it's practically possible to staff new or even current prisons at existing pay rates, nor politically possible to increase pay enough to draw more quality recruits." ; however, I think your solution has the same pitfalls. The powers that be have too big an investment in the current situation to allow a wacky solution such as yours to see the light of day, no matter how sensible that wacky solution is.

P.S. $17 billion per biennium on corrections or on the criminal justice system?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Criminal justice total (excluding the judiciary), not just "corrections" - sorry I misstated. That figure doesn't include county or local expenditures.

Anonymous said...

We are a society that expects an instant "microwave" answer. This problem has been in the making a very long time and no solution will happen overnight. BUT many solutions need to be implemented. Education, even at the incarcerated level does prevent crime. Drug and alcohol, along with mental health counseling prevents crime. Even a tiny percentage of the humongous criminal justice budget would go a long way to addressing this. It is true that jail is a big business from start to finish, people must recognize that this is a business that is draining and damaging to society. VOTE

Anonymous said...

Too Old To Worry About It wrote: "Everybody has a solution, but no one has a solution to pay for the solution, that will be acceptable to the payers. I wonder how long before 'The Rise And Fall Of Western Civilization' will top the bestseller list."

The money's already there, man. Maybe you could go to Iraq and round it back up for us.

With the taxes we already pay, we could go a long way to reducing our violent crime rate to that of Europe and even much lower. But that would require the endorsement of a politcal view (redistribution) that is unacceptable to our political ruling class. It would also result in stronger bargaining positions for labor as against capital, which is the real reason for the political objections from the economic elite.

So, in exchange for protecting their wealth, your daughter gets raped or murdered. Such is life.

(Anonymous 3:09 here)

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