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.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."
But he's not a threat to the community, right?
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."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.
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)?
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?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.
Bad guys in jail + strong sentences = lower crime rate
Nothing too complicated about that. What did I miss?
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.But a more astute cultural critic recognized that the aforementioned discomfort was actually the point of the show's perverted premise:
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.
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.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.
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.
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.