Sunday, March 16, 2008

Paroling murderers to make room for druggies?

Here's an excellent, real-world example of how expending scarce incarceration resources on low-level, nonviolent offenders takes up prison space that should be housing more dangerous people - a Texan paroled in 2006 after receiving a life sentence for murder in 1987 robbed two elderly men in Florida on Friday and is now back in custody. Reported the Orlando Sentinel ("Texas parolee charged with robbing two elderly men," March 15):
A Eustis man on parole for a murder he committed in Texas attacked and robbed two elderly men Thursday and Friday before deputies caught him using one of his victim's credit cards at a Wal-Mart, authorities said.

Glen Semento, 47, was charged with aggravated battery, robbery and fraudulent use of a credit card. He was being held without bond in the Lake County Jail. Sheriff's Capt. Todd Luce said it will be up to Texas to determine how to punish Semento for violating the conditions of his parole. ...

Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said Semento was convicted of first-degree murder in 1987 and was sentenced to life in prison. He was paroled in August 2006 and moved to Lake County. The Florida Department of Corrections agreed to supervise Semento's parole because he said he wanted to live with his parents and he had a job lined up, department spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff said.

According to the Texas appellate court opinion that upheld his conviction, Semento was convicted of murdering William Lappine in March 1986. Lappine died of strangulation, but he was also bludgeoned on the head and had defensive wounds on his hands and arms.

Investigators found that Semento had pawned Lappine's television and stereo. They also found a fingerprint and partial palm print that matched Semento's in Lappine's apartment. There was no evidence that Lappine and Semento knew each other.
To understand why such a person gets paroled requires a little background. After all, Texas' Board of Pardons and Parole is notoriously "tough." They established a set of guidelines for how many inmates should be receiving parole each year then for the most part have refused to follow them, denying parole every year to thousands of eligible inmates.

But ironically, for reasons I've never understood, Texas' parole board is MORE likely to follow its guidelines for the most violent offenders - like this guy - than for the lowest risk inmates. The Sunset Commission staff report evaluating them in 2006 found that (see here, page 29-30), "By not reflecting the guidelines, parole panel decisions may actually be skewed in favor of higher offense severity and higher-risk offenders." By contrast, for the lowest risk offenders, parole rates "have consistently fallen well below even the minimum rates that the guidelines would provide"

Translated from bureaucratese, that means the most dangerous offenders are more likely to be paroled when they're eligible than those who pose less risk.

There's only one reason that's happening: The prison system needs the space to house addicts, drunks, and non-violent offenders like this guy, and this one, and this schoolteacher, and homeless people who steal copper wire, and a host of others who didn't commit nearly as serious an offense as this fellow. They're locked up and he's out carjacking people. What's wrong with this picture?

A past campaign client of mine, former state Rep. Ray Allen, likes to say that Texas should only lock up people we're "afraid of," not those whom we're only "mad at." This case shows that's not just a catchy slogan, it's damn good public safety advice.


Anonymous said...

Don't know much about TDCJ but are your low level offenders REALLY taking up bed space in the same facilities as violent offenders?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

They segregate them by offender type, but with a few exceptions (e.g. low level property and less than a gram drug offenders are in so-called "state jails," and the most violent are in ad seg), mostly, yes. Gen pop is gen pop. There are plenty of commenters from TDCJ who can correct me if I'm wrong. (Retired?)

Bottom line, you've got 155,000 beds, plus some new treatment beds coming online. The question is who're you going to fill them with, because even if you build more you can't staff them?

Anonymous said...

Then there's the problem of the convicted that did not accept a plea deal.

They're charged with a higher level crime and encouraged to accept a plea for a much lesser crime. If they are innocent and don't accept the "deal" they go to trial and when they loose - they almost always loose - the Judge throws the book at them.

Now comes time for parole and the statistics kick in. Parole decisions are not based on what the person actually did but what they were convicted of and how long they've served. Prison behavior is only considered if it is negative.

So you have someone that displayed a knife during an argument to defend themselve is serving 85% or more of a lengthy sentence despite a clean record in prison.

Prisoners are still encouraged to make a parole packages - plans for a job, car, place to live upon release but these plans don't make a difference - they are not even read since the BPP can devote only about 10 minutes to each decision. The BPP cannot follow their own guidelines, they make decisions based on numbers and can't even get that right!

Classification, i.e., housing decisions and custody status are a huge mystery; a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Prison is a very dangerous place full of violence and communicable disease. The lack of adequate staffing puts everyone involved at risk of violence every day.

Is is no surprise that parolees are full of anger and unable to adjust to society upon release. They're going to be just as full of anger when they've completed their time and there are 70,000 of them every year. I wish the media would make more of this delima and less of the poor guy in Florida that failed to stay crime free after 20 years in hell.

Anonymous said...

In a recent reply to an email I sent him, House Speaker Mr Tom Craddick said the following:

"This past legislative session Senate Bill 909, the TDCJ Sunset bill, contained many reform provisions related to probation, parole and prison health care. You may be interested to know that Senate Bill 909 requires the Parole Board to meet annually to review and update the parole guidelines. The bill also requires parole panel members who deviate from the guidelines to provide a detailed written statement explaining the specific reasons for the deviation. Finally, the bill requires the parole guidelines to take into consideration an inmate's progress in any programs in which the inmate participated during the inmate's term of confinement."

I have asked him to tell me now, what measures are in place when the BPP do not follow the requirements of the Senate Bill 909, and I am waiting for his answer.

In the meantime, Scott, are you trying to suggest that all so-called violent offenders be kept in prison on the basis of this one man's failings? He did serve 20 years ~ what was his original sentence? If he had been given 20 years and served it all and THEN got out and did what he did, wouldnt that say just as much about the non-existant rehabilitation in TDCJ as it would about the individual?

And TDCJ only have a limited segregation available. Inmates are not segregated by offence, they are housed where beds are available according to their custody levels which depend on their behaviour while in prison. So you could ligitimately find a very well behaved murderer in the same cell as a white collar fraudster.

Anonymous said...

I am a broken record, but here goes. If offenders with non-violent drug or alcohol convictions were placed in functional rehab programs, the prison population would drop considerably. Many of these low level offenses can even be taken care of in community based programs, no bed required. Of course, there are many other areas of reform needed, including parole. The need for independent oversight is critical. Without any watch dog, many parts of this process is flawed. Because of the overcrowing, revolving prison moves, and lack of training inmates of all kinds can be lumped together. I know of an individual with DUI's, the cellie is a violent offender. The man has severe mental illness, but tdcj is giving him so much medication, he sleeps 23 hours a day. I suppose that's one way to handle prison issues.

Anonymous said...

Sunray - I too would like to know how anyone is to know if the BPP is following the requirements of Senate Bill 909.

What the BPP is required to do and what it acutally does are vastly different. The main reason is that they have "complete discretion" in their decisions. Until that changes and they have genuine oversight and consequences for their actions, Senate Bill 909 is also a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Scott, are you trying to suggest that all so-called violent offenders be kept in prison on the basis of this one man's failings?"

Of course not, Sunray. As a class, e.g., murderers have relatively low recidivism rates, ironically. But surely you agree that when they released this guy to make room for folks with 1.2 grams of meth, or whatever, that's a bad public policy tradeoff. The point I'm making is that prisons should be for dangerous people, not to handle social problems like addiction, mental illness, deteriorating family structures, or poverty.

This guy was given a life sentence for a heinous offense and served twenty years, getting out in his mid-40s. Then he's carjacking septuagenarians a year later. Ever since I've worked on these topics, whenever such a thing happens you hear the DAs and the Build More Prisons crowd use the "Willie Horton" tactic to justify "tuffer" laws and locking more people up. But I think such cases make the opposite argument: That we're not being picky enough about who we send to prison if we're letting guys like that out.

Thanks for the info from Craddick, etc., btw - I'd forgotten about the SB909 provision. It'll be interesting to read some of these "detailed written explanations." best,

Unknown said...

My experience is that support for "tuffer" laws runs at least 25% higher than support for money to actually pay for jails and prisons. My bet is that there is a positive correlation between numbers of police and numbers of people in jail. They have to do something to justify their existence. We got these extra police when "liberal" Clinton was president. They're never around when you really need them - but they're in your face when you don't want them. And police departments attract bullies much like Meth and alcohol attract violent people.
If we packaged "tuffer" laws with the higher taxes necessary to actually put more people in prison we wouldn't have these "problems".

Anonymous said...

We would also have fewer of these problems when there were financial consequences for DA's offices when they screw up.

These guys make errors all the for them to clean up their act! All they have to do is keep their voters happy. Like all politicians, they will never admit a mistake let alone take accountability for one.

Anonymous said...

The last post should also include what to do when a Judge thinks they are above everyone and some even think they sit on a throne. Something needs to be done about judges, the district attorneys who only want to win cases and don't care if they ruin the lives of an entire family with their actions. The judicial system in Texas stinks to high heaven and one day they too will have a Higher Authority to answer to, Jesus Christ, for the sins they have committed and the grief they have caused families by the lies the DAs tell in court just to win!

Anonymous said...

There is far more to this story that one could possibly imagine...Glen Semento is the brother of a sitting Judge in Lake County Florida. I alsways thought Texas put convicted murderers on death row not release them. Especially release the murderer to the same county and state where his brother is a sitting Judge. Judge Lawrence J. Semento could not not use any more influence to protect his brother after he brutally attacked an elderly person, stole their car and credit cards in a drug fueled rampage and was finally arrested again after using the stolen credit cards at a local Wal Mart. If anyone thinks that Glen Semento was released because of bed space they are simply naive. This was a high level political favor. Its just that Glen Semento couldn't control himself. Who ever approved his release from prison and who ever thought it best to bring him back to Florida as a violent criminal, has the blood of that eldery citizen on their hands.