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Real Recidivism *Update*

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I received this interesting note from Dr. Greg Little (see yesterday’s post) explaining his research methods in more detail and discussing his findings:

Overall you present a good summary. But I can answer your questions. The study’s subjects all applied for entry into a drug treatment program (MRT) operated by the Shelby County Correction Center in Memphis, TN from 1986-1991. All were felons serving from 1 to 6 years. The control group was formed from a smaller number of individuals who were randomly excluded because of limited treatment slots. The treated subjects were randomly selected to enter…after all the subjects were placed into a pool of eligibles.

So both the study group and the control group were people who had applied to take part in a drug treatment program.  That solves the problem of self-selection, in a way, making the data on the effect of the treatment more reliable, for the main difference between the two groups would be the treatment program, and only the treatment program.

It makes me wonder about the recidivism rates for offenders who didn’t try to apply for the drug treatment program, though (not that you can get a recidivism rate much higher than 94%).  Were they simply not substance abusers?  Were they excluded because of behavioral issues such as violence?  Additionally, felons serving more than six years were excluded from the study, so we don’t know the recidivism rates for them.  Undoubtedly, members of that group include the sorts of violent criminals whose propensity for recidivism is most worrying.  And offenders serving less than a year weren’t counted either.

None of this is to say that the study isn’t valuable, nor that the researchers here are misrepresenting their findings.  But it’s important to be aware of the difference between what a study proves and what it cannot prove.  Too often, the media ignores this difference.  And when the research is conducted by activist organizations with anti-incarceration agendas (not the case here), like the Pew Foundation, or the Sentencing Project, the claims they make are often extremely unreliable.  At best.

Dr. Little continues:

There were no differences between the treated and control groups. There have been about a dozen prior published studies in peer-reviewed journals on these groups covering their time periods from 1 to 10 years after release. We were interested in what honestly happens to these people after 20 years of release. The local government, which we are not affiliated with, supplied the data.

You are correct that the authors (I am the senior author) are engaged in starting programs that reduce recidivism. We all make our living in criminal justice, we are all long-term professionals, and I have been in the field since 1975. All rearrests, only with minor traffic charges excluded, were collected as were all reincarcerations. The criminal justice system has always supplied misleading statistics, and that’s something we have battled for decades and have included such ethically-challenged issues in our textbooks and articles. There is a difference between what could be called “accurate” and what is “true” or “honest,” and we wanted to present a true and completely honest picture of what happens after 20 years. The data were, quite frankly, highly disappointing, but also somewhat encouraging. The real point is that there is a proportion of offenders that will return after their release no matter what we do. Right now, reducing those rearrested from 94% to 81% after 20 years is the best anyone has found. Reducing the reincarceration rate (which is rearrest, conviction, plus new sentence) is from 82% to 61%, also the best ever found. It means even using the best treatment known currently, 81% will be rearrested and 61% will still be reincarcerated. Without using that method, 94% are rearrested and 81% are reincarcerated.

The link to the original full article can be found here:
http://www.i-newswire.com/what-happens-over-twenty-years/21666

As I wrote yesterday, I don’t oppose realistic rehabilitation efforts (who would, really?).  What I object to is using substance abuse as an excuse for crime, which results in untold numbers of offenders escaping punishment simply because they say they’re helpless addicts.  And that doesn’t do anyone, including them, any good at all.  Nor does it help to romanticize criminals, or encourage them to believe that they are victims of society, as so many rehabilitation programs do.  Changing Lives Through Literature, for example, seems less about “rehabilitating” offenders than convincing them that their own convictions were unjust (see here and here).

Unfortunately, such anti-incarceration activists (who are currently in force in the Justice Department, in academic departments, and, of course, in the rehabilitation industry) never change their tune, no matter the evidence presented about the inevitability of re-offending.  Their first line of defense is claiming that recidivism rates are not nearly as high as many believe.  But hand them a 94% re-arrest rate, and they will say it’s proof that prison doesn’t work.  If we never incarcerate anyone, the line goes, then there will be less crime (thank goodness they’re not in charge of the laws of gravity).

A few years ago, I ran into a former co-worker who attributed his ability to kick a cocaine habit to a long sentence behind bars.  He never would have stuck with drug treatment, he told me, if he had not been incarcerated.  Then he listed other co-workers we knew who died young.  He considered himself lucky.  The so-called drug war, and stiff sentencing, doesn’t get enough credit for saving lives.

What do we do with a 94% re-arrest rate?  There’s no one good answer.  But one thing we definitely should not do is keep pretending that all that crime doesn’t really exist.

New York City, 1990; Ciudad Juarez, 2009; Justice Reinvestment, Tomorrow

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A shiny new euphemism is bouncing around Washington these days: it’s called Justice Reinvestment.

That sounds nice.  Thrifty.  Far better than the unfortunately named “Prisoner Reentry,” which was former President Bush’s euphemism for his program handing $300 million dollars over to FBCOS (faith and community based organizations, in other words, any darn thing) to provide “services” (“mentoring,” putative job training, free housing and other goodies) to offenders “reentering” their communities.

In other words, getting out of jail.

Of course, Bush was an unrehabilitated knuckle-dragger, so the new administration has announced, to great fanfare, that those dark days of denying offenders services (“mentoring,” putative job training, free housing, and other goodies) have Finally Come To An End, now that they’ve invented an entirely new name for them.

Justice Reinvestment definitely sounds better than Prisoner Reentry, but other than the stationary headings, both programs do precisely the same thing: they pay a whole bunch of pricey advocates to put a good spin on the fact that our streets are crawling with offenders who ought to be in prison but are not.

Like all spin on crime, Justice Reinvestment is an expression of the foundational myth of crime and punishment in America, neatly summarized in this Nation editorial and thousands of identical screeds.  I paraphrase, but not much (* are real quotes):

Once upon a time, during the Golden Age (roughly, 1963 to 1989), we rehabilitated criminals, instead of punishing them.  But then, a vindictive and stupid public woke up one morning and demanded that their leaders become tough on crime.  Spineless politicians, driven by the unslaked blood-thirst of the public, started putting vast numbers of people in prison for no reason whatsoever, and soon we became a prison state where there was no rehabilitation, no parole, and no second chances.  Then we were worse than Iran!  Cruel and irrational new laws “sent young men to prison for life for stealing a slice of pizza,”* when we could have been using all that money to send them to Princeton.  Ivy League, not Central Lockdown!  Except, not the campus where I’m sending my daughter, please.  Everybody knows that prisons don’t prevent crime.  “All prison is likely to teach . . . is how to commit crime again,”* whereas, at Princeton, young offenders could have been taught literary criticism instead.  If there were no prisons, there would be no recidivism.  That’s a fact.  But because we destroyed the consequence-free paradise that was 1974, we are forcing young, one-time offenders to become lifetime criminals.  Now, because we have chosen enforcement over empathy, “half of those released will be convicted for another crime within three years.”* So it’s vital that we admit we were wrong and, from this point forward, avoid holding criminals accountable in any way, lest we turn them into recidivists.  Using laws.   They just need understanding.  And job training.  And mentors.

This myth, exactly none of which is true (except the shocking recidivism stats) has been embraced by both Democrats and Republicans, which doesn’t make it more credible, just more bipartisan.  How wrong-headed is this thinking?  This chart should do the trick:

800px-NYC_murders

See 1963ish?  That is the dawning of the Age of Anti-Incarceration, rising to full bloom in the bloodshed-ey Eighties.  See 1990?  That was when three-strikes, enhanced penalties for gun crimes, and broken-windows policing began replacing the leniency of the previous two decades.

See the blank spot on the far right side of the declining ski slope between 1990 and 2000?  Those are the thousands of lives saved in New York City alone, thanks to those terrible Americans who began to demand that the justice system incarcerate offenders instead of automatically cutting them loose.

I saw an interesting statistic in the newspaper.  Ciudad Juarez, where 16 young people were shot to death at a birthday party yesterday, had about as many murders last year as New York City had in 1990.  So if you want to imagine what contemporary New York would look like if only those horrible law-and-order types hadn’t turned America into Iran some time around 1992, think Ciudad Juarez.

In fairness, the murder rate in Ciudad Juarez today is far higher than the 1990 New York City murder rate: there are only 1.5 million people in Juarez, one-fifth the population of NYC three decades ago.  But there were roughly 1.35 million poor living in NYC when the city’s murder rate spiked, and, of course, the vast majority of the killings took place exclusively among the poor.

So it really was that bad.  Sending more people to prison really did save more lives.

And yet, the anti-incarceration activists continue to insist that “fascist” law enforcement, not crime, is the only real problem, and the only real solution to everything is more leniency and more administration.  That is the real intent of the Justice Reinvestment movement, though I dare anyone to read through the Byzantine prose of the official Four-Step Strategy and explain what they are actually saying.

It is, after all, your money they’re throwing at that guy who just stole your lawnmower.

The New Normal: Atlanta

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I, for one, think newspapers are being rejuvenated by their current financial crisis.  The old-fashioned, insular newsroom, with its disturbing status quo on crime reporting (defendants are victims of society; victims are society, and thereby guilty of something) is becoming a thing of the past.

Over the holiday weekend, the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran this must-read story by Bill Torpy, in which he examines the real costs of retail burglaries for small business owners:

Last week, [Dana] Spinola’s Midtown business — fab’rik, one of her three metro Atlanta stores — was broken into by one of the smash-and-grab burglary crews that have increasingly plagued city merchants. It was, she figures, the 15th break-in during that store’s seven years of business.

“At this point, we’re surprised they got in,” Spinola said. To thwart burglars she had installed unbreakable glass, alarms, sensors and gates, and hired in-store security.

“I’m hardened to it. It’s a $2,000 robbery, not a $40,000 robbery. You don’t call insurance on this level,” she said. Besides, she adds, “We’ve never had anything recovered.” . . .

An informal check of several businesses that have been burglarized in the past year found that several have gone under or are teetering.

“It could definitely put you under,” Spinola said. “It can break your spirit.”

The “vicious cycle” can become a “quality of life issue,” said Buckhead Coalition president Sam Massell. “We all pay for it with higher insurance rates. It hurts employment. It hurts the tax base. The mom and pop stores are valuable to the city.”

Early last month, thieves smashed through the window of the popular Blue Genes boutique near Lenox Square and made off with $100,000 in merchandise. It was the seventh break-in in eight years, Jennifer Arrendale, who owns the store with two sisters, said at the time.

“We lost everything,” she said.

Add these business losses, job losses, and extraordinary security expenses to the tab for our failure to impose consequences for committing crimes.  Then consider the human toll on those who are risking their lives just by arriving at work in the morning or shutting down their stores at night.  Anyone who has ever worked a cash register or turned out the lights in a stockroom at closing time knows what it feels like to suddenly sense a threatening vibe:

Wendy Jackson, owner of Signature 4 Men on Lenox Road and frequent crime victim, said the thieves are savvy enough to surveil the businesses before they strike.

“They scope out the stores when the jeans come in, the high-end jackets, the sunglasses. They want to pinpoint where they’ll go [when they break in],” she said. “It’s out of control, out of control.”

Jackson has engaged in an arms race with Atlanta’s punks: They throw a rock through the window, she installs steel gates, so the next time they drive a truck through the window. She puts in a buzzer to screen customers who enter, so the thieves send a respectable-looking fellow to the door. He gets buzzed in, “then they bum rush the store,” she said, and run out with thousands of dollars of merchandise.

She now keeps less inventory, can no longer obtain insurance, works seven days a week to cut labor costs and would love to get out of her lease and the business. “These guys will ruin your life,” she said.

Last year, Lafayette Brazil’s boutique on Peachtree Road was hit by a robbing crew that pepper sprayed workers. Two men arrested in connection with the robbery at Brazil’s and a similar one at a Decatur boutique, Kaleidoscope, are still being held in Fulton County jail awaiting trial.

After 14 years at the site, Brazil closed. “After a while, you can’t keep getting robbed,” he said.

Kaleidoscope’s owner, Camille Wright, like many other retailers, complained that the penalties for and prosecution of smash-and-grab artists are light. “The only reason [authorities] went after the guys at my store is because there was an assault involved,” she said.

And if there had not been an assault?  Let’s tell the truth about the court system.  The thieves would get quick probation, or nolo prosequi, or their first or fifth first-time-offender free passes out the door.  Maybe a plea to a lesser offense, a drug charge, which might seem undesirable but actually opens doors to community-based treatment and approbation from those who view all drug offenders as victims of society.   This is the new normal in Atlanta, yet it is not particularly new.  Despite all the headlines screaming about our “Prison/Industrial Complex,” recidivist felons have been strolling out of jail with a slap on the wrist for forty years now.  Such as, this one.

Yet in some places, politicians are considering lowering the bar even further by making retail burglary a misdemeanor offense in order to save money.  In reality, they needn’t bother: prosecutors already can’t afford to prosecute retail burglaries and other crimes, so, as shop owner Camille Wright rightly observes, most cases of retail theft are simply pleaded away to nothing or dropped:

The problem got so bad last year that Atlanta police formed a task force to nab the so-called “Blue Jean Bandits,” who rampaged through high-end fashion stores and carried off tons of high-priced denim. Criminals employ a wide range of methods, including smashing windows of closed stores, driving trucks through protective gates and even overpowering retail clerks in the middle of the day.

The spree seemed to die down late last year but picked up again this spring.

“It’s back with a vengeance,” said Sgt. Archie Ezell, who heads the police department’s retail theft task force. He said the department made 32 arrests in “smash” cases last year but more criminals seem to be rushing in to take their place. A spokeswoman for the Fulton County District Attorney’s said 35 smash- and-grab cases have been indicted, 15 have resulted in convictions and 16 are still open.

“Kids are being recruited for this; they’re 13, 14 and 15 years old,” he said. “They are told nothing will happen to them if they are caught.”

I’d be interested to know the sentences for each of those 15 convictions.

Store owners ought to start reaching out to Atlanta’s court-watchers whenever thieves get caught.  That may help to slow down the revolving jail doors.

There is no justification for people being forced to live this way.  It’s madness.  When you read a newspaper article like this one, and hear the voices of crime victims who are perfectly aware that the system has failed to protect them, you have to ask how it is that we have gotten to this crazy place.

Allow me to introduce you to the source of the problem.

The source of the problem of not-removing-offenders-from-the-streets is something I like to call the Academic/Activist/Advocacy Complex (AAAC), an incredibly powerful network of “institutes” and “researchers” and professors and professional protesters and policy makers all united in the goal of ensuring that people do not go to prison when they commit crimes.  These people believe that incarceration itself is not only a crime but the only type of crime that matters.  They do not believe in deterrence.  They do not believe in personal responsibility.  They believe that the thugs who just drove a car through the front of your store for the third time this year should not be punished for doing this, or even prevented from doing it again, but should be “understood” and offered sympathy and job training and other types of financial and emotional support.

These people despise crime victims, because acknowledging the reality of victimization makes it (temporarily) harder for them to engage in their fantasy life, in which they are heroes and heroines “uplifting” poor, misunderstood criminals.  Browbeating the rest of us with their virtue.

It is a dangerous indulgence.  It is also a lucrative career choice.

Luckily, sentencing policy is set by the states, not the federal government, for the Justice Department is now firmly in the hands of the AAAC.

And an enormous showdown is brewing between state legislatures that try to hold the line on crime (though they’re not enthusiastic about paying for it) and the AAAC.  It will be played out directly on the backs of homeowners and business owners who are already reeling from the economic downturn.  It has been played on ordinary citizens’ backs for some forty years now, but the battle is about to accelerate, fueled by the need to cut state budgets and by stimulus money being offered by the feds for certain offender-centered projects (prisoner re-entry, community sentencing pilot programs, sentencing “reform”).

Interestingly, many newspapers are no longer firmly in the AAAC corner on this fight.  Even the New York Times has begun to show cracks in its reflexive pro-criminal preferences.

When you see the following institutions in the news, being quoted on their research, know that they are dedicated to keeping criminals on the streets, at any price to you and me:

The Pew Center on the States, Corrections and Public Safety (Pew Center Charitable Trust)

Families Against Mandatory Minimums

The Vera Institute of Justice

The Sentencing Project

The Justice Policy Institute

Central to the AAAC ideology is the belief that incarcerating criminals is a bad thing because it dis-unites communities.  But what happens to communities when decent people live under siege?  This question is answered, with dismaying clarity, at the end of Torpy’s article:

[B]lue jeans, jackets and sunglasses are quickly sold on the street at a fraction of the retail price. It’s an operation the public tacitly supports. “People are like, ‘It’s too bad for you, good for me,’ ” [store owner Camille] Wright said. “People have no guilt” in buying goods they know are stolen.

Adrene Ashford, owner of Adrene Boutique in the Castleberry Hill area south of downtown, has seen a resurgence in crime. Her store was hit twice in April. . . Ashford said a distrust of customers has crept into her life.  “You don’t even know how mad it makes you. They come in the store. They smile in your face, flirt with you and then come back to rob you.”

Bloody Outrage: Another Murder That Could Have Been Prevented — Updated

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CORRECTION TO THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE:  A reader informed me that the names of judges currently presiding over a court division in Florida attach to previous cases from that division — therefore, the judge listed online may not be the same judge who meted out a previous sentence in that division.  I have corrected the following story to reflect this.

Why this happens is another issue.  There ought to be real transparency in court proceedings, and it shouldn’t require a trip to the courthouse or a phone call to sometimes-unresponsive clerks to discover how a particular judge ruled on a particular case — who let a sex assailant and child abuser go free, to kill another victim, for instance.

Corrections are underlined.  If anyone can provide the names of these judges, please let me know.  I can’t access the dockets — although I pay these judges’ salaries, and so do you.

In the St. Petersburg Times this morning:

Sex offender accused of pregnant St. Petersburg teen’s death

Polk County Sheriff’s deputies have arrested a 36-year-old St. Petersburg man for the murder of a pregnant teen whose body was found Monday in Davenport.

Aurelio Martinez, (left) a registered sex offender, was arrested at about 7 a.m. on a second degree murder charge for the killing of 17-year-old Bria Metz.

I looked up Martinez’ sex offender record. In October, 1997, in Dade County (Miami), Martinez was convicted of burglary with assault and battery and sexual battery. He was also convicted of probation violation because he was on probation at the time of the attack.

Serious stuff, right? Burglary, assault and battery, sexual assault? So what did the presiding judge do? He or she sentenced him to probation. Probation for burglary, assault, a sex crime, and violating probation.

I guess the judge figured Martinez was getting good at probation. He’d been been on it for so long.

There’s a problem, though: the judge was not supposed to sentence Martinez to probation for these crimes. There’s another problem, too. Because some judge let Martinez go, probably in violation of Florida sentencing law, Martinez was free to commit felony child abuse with injury to the child in 2003.

In November, 2003, in Hollywood, Florida (Broward County), Aurelio Martinez and Amy Andrea Young were charged with child abuse, presumably of Ms. Young’s child. Police actually filed two charges against Martinez: felony child abuse and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Judge Carlos Rodriguez presided, the weapons charge apparently disappeared (of course), and Martinez was sentenced to three years in prison.

Here is where it gets confusing, at least from what can be seen on-line. The child abuse and assault with a deadly weapon crimes were committed on 11/2003. Martinez was sentenced in 7/2005, twenty months later. Was he in prison during that time? Or was he on probation again, until he violated that probation as well? Broward County wants me to pay for access to that part of the website — the charge is five dollars simply to find out Martinez’s sentence. That’s nuts.

[Note to Howard C. Forman, Clerk of Courts, Broward County: I already pay for that website. It's called taxes.]

My guess is that Martinez was in jail awaiting sentencing. It would be nice to think so — nice to think that the judge hadn’t given him probation again, for beating a child. In any case, he entered the state prison system in 7/2005 and got out 25 months later, which is either two years behind bars or nearly four years behind bars, depending on what happened in 2004.

In 2006, during the time he was in prison, he was also sentenced to one year and three months in the 1997 “burglary/assault-and-battery/sexual assault” charge in Dade County. Maybe he was going to get out early from the child abuse charge, and they finally decided to give him some time for “burglary/assault-and-battery/sexual assault/parole violation.” Or maybe it took them several months to figure out that he was on probation in another county for serious felony charges.

If they did decide to give him a bit of time for the sexual assault, finally, it wasn’t much, and it was served concurrently with the felony child abuse sentence.

Are you enraged yet? I’m enraged. Probation for a sex crime, even after violating probation, and then less than two years for the sex crime after his probation was revoked because he’d violated probation a third time and committed felony violence against a child, and he still didn’t even serve all of that sentence? Do we have absolutely no standards? And still, the academicians and activists and the Pew Foundation whimper:

“We’ve got too many people behind bars. We’re a fascist state.”

But, of course, it gets worse.

Let’s start at the beginning. Only, we can’t do that, because juvenile records are sealed. Oh, well. Aurelio Martinez’s first adult charge, unsurprisingly, occurred months after his 18th birthday. Funny how that happens: I wonder what he was doing before he aged out of juvenile. The 1991 charge was for loitering and resisting arrest. It was dropped. Whatever. It didn’t take long for Martinez to get into serious trouble. In 1994, he was convicted of felony burglary, felony grand theft, felony possession of burglary tools, and carrying a concealed weapon.

You know where this is going. Three felony convictions? Probation, of course. Some judge let him go. One year of probation, starting 12/15/94. What was this judge thinking? What is he thinking today, after the murder?

Another charge against Martinez was decided by the judge that day — it has a different case number and different filing date. I’m not sure if it is a totally separate offense. In any case, felony armed burglary in that case was dropped (thank you, plea bargains), felony cocaine possession and concealed weapon charges were disposed with probation, and probation violation was disposed with terminating probation. But at the end of the day, Martinez walked out of court on probation anyway.

Get it?

“But we’re a fascist state. We’re so hard on criminals.”

Imagine being the police officer who had to arrest Martinez, knowing full well he was armed, that he had used weapons, that he had a record.

Imagine being the social worker walking into his home a few years later to try to rescue a child. We send unarmed child protection workers into homes where there are armed felons. We expect unarmed child protection workers to challenge the authority of armed felons.

“But we’re a fascist state.”

Nobody asks judges to do what we ask of unarmed child protection workers and police officers. Perhaps if we asked them to confront the violent people they send back into the community in the communities they send them to, sentencing patterns would change.

What is the matter with our judges? In this case, it looks very much like at least one judge broke the law. But even if he didn’t — even if there was some loophole that permitted that judge to let Martinez walk free — why, in his judgment, did that seem like the right thing to do? How does any judge justify putting armed felons back on the streets, with no time served?

If no judge broke the law in releasing Martinez, clearly there are still problems with our repeat offender laws and minimum mandatory laws that need to be resolved by the legislature.

Because we can’t trust judges to keep us safe.

At least Martinez had to register as a sex offender in 1998, an act that placed his DNA on record and reminded him that his DNA would be in the state database, so if he committed another sexual assault, he could be identified. How many rapes have sex offender registries prevented this way?

But this raises another enforcement issue: is anybody enforcing the sex offender registry laws? In 2001, in Broward County, Martinez violated the registry rules. Adjudication was withheld — in other words, nobody did anything. And then he brutalized a child.

The record so far:

  • 1991: Aurelio Martinez turns 18 and his subsequent crimes become public record.
  • 1994: A judge lets Martinez walk on a fistful of serious, felony charges, including armed burglary.
  • 1997: Another judge lets Martinez walk on even more serious, felony charges, including sexual assault, probation violation, burglary, concealed weapons.
  • 2005: Judge Carlos Rodriguez slaps Martinez on the wrist for felony child abuse charges, drops other weapons charges, and chooses to not use his authority to enhance Martinez’s sentence in any way, despite his record, the unadjudicated sex offender registry violation, and the other times he has violated probation by committing violent crimes.
  • 2007: Freed a few years later, Martinez violates probation again and flees.
  • 2009: By his own admission, Martinez murders pregnant, 17-year old Bria Metz by strangling her.

Another question: did anybody know that Martinez was in St. Petersburg? If so, why wasn’t he picked up before Metz died, but only afterwards? From today’s St. Pete Times:

Martinez, who is currently in the Pinellas County Jail on violation of probation stemming from a 2003 child abuse case, told detectives he was with Metz was at his home the night she disappeared.

Metz wanted money, Martinez told detectives, and he drove her to her grandmothers. The two argued about money and began fighting after Metz threatened to expose their relationship to law enforcement.

Martinez told detectives that he grabbed Metz’ neck and held her for three to five minutes.

Serial judicial leniency claims another life. Bria Metz joins Eugenia Calle, and how many other victims of murder, killed despite numerous chances to put their murderers away?

More Americans in Prison Than (fill in the blank). Here’s the Unasked Question: Why Do We Have So Many More Criminals Committing So Much Crime?

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In merely the latest of an endless series of proclamations that we must do something to get our prison population in line with other countries’, Republican Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Senator Jim Webb have teamed up to create a blue-ribbon panel to rehash the usual themes: reducing levels of drug criminalization, freeing the mentally ill from jails, exploring alternatives to sentencing, and enhancing prisoner re-entry services.  Their goal is to reduce the prevalence of prosecutions so that our incarceration statistics come to resemble statistics in European nations.  Of course, crime, especially violent crime, is vastly more prevalent here; thus, higher rates of incarceration.  But that subject is verboten.  Efforts to avoid acknowledging crime in a discussion about responses to crime lead to convoluted statements like the following:

We are doing something drastically wrong,” said Webb, whose plan also aims to improve the US response to armed gangs, especially drug-related groups, as it seeks to bring the prison population down from about 2.4 million people.

And this, directly from the normally straight-shooting Senator Webb:

“We are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life, and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail,” said Webb.

So, we are going to bring down the prison population but improve the response to armed gangs?  Let more people out of jail but protect our citizens from violence?  Look at the prior records of people in Georgia who were identified as rapists after DNA sampling became the law.  Mostly, they had prior records for burglary and drug charges, not violent crimes.  If we had not been enforcing the law for these crimes (as many are proposing now), and sending these men to prison (not community control, where they would not be tested), then scores of rapes would have gone unsolved.   

Is it really true that we have the wrong people behind bars and not enough of the right people there? Or is the truth more simple (albeit troubling): could we actually need to put more people behind bars to ensure public safety, European incarceration statistics notwithstanding? 

I agree with one stated goal of the commission: I’m all for improving services to the mentally ill.  But prisons don’t cause substandard mental health care; they are merely one of the two institutions of last resort (the other being homeless shelters) that deal with the chronically mentally ill in the absence of long-term inpatient treatment.  The prison system has served this thankless role since the 1970′s, when inpatient facilities were shuttered as a result of civil rights lawsuits.  Ever since, people who cannot or will not take care of themselves have been “free” to make their way on the streets, for better or worse.

No amount of fiddling with the criminal justice system will change this fact.  Nor will activists permit a return to institutionalization, no matter how enlightened and humane.  Taking so much as one homeless schizophrenic off the streets and placing her in an institution, even if she is assaulting passers-by and in constant danger of victimization herself, will only result in an endless series of expensive (and taxpayer-subsidized) lawsuits to restore her to her previous condition, no matter how imperiled and degraded.

Activist lawyers know they can sue to de-fund any effort to move homeless people from jails or the streets to other institutions.  And so we will be left with dockets jammed with lawsuits and a billion-dollar prosecution and indigent defense bill, and nothing else will change, except that we will be that much more unable to fund the prosecution of predators and felons.

This is, of course, the real aim of the anti-incarceration crowd.  Depleting criminal justice resources, either through endless appeals or endless lawsuits, has been more effective at freeing higher percentages of criminals than any other strategy.  If you don’t have the money to pay prosecutors, you can’t prosecute crimes.  If you furlough police, they don’t have time to show up in court to testify.  If defense attorneys don’t get paid, trials can’t proceed. Courts from Oregon to Jacksonville have been forced to suspend prosecutions because their budgets are depleted.  Once the courts are in a financial crisis, the pressure to shed lower-level prosecutions grows into mass abandonment of most prosecutions.  

Every day, thousands of citizens are already denied justice for victimizations large and small because we have already severely rationed their access to the justice system.  Their stolen car, or lawn-mower, or television set will not be taken seriously because nobody has the time or money to take it seriously.  If you live in Oregon, that guy rooting around in your garage, or assaulting a security guard, isn’t even facing jail time anymore:

In Lane County, the number of prosecutors has dropped from 28 to 23 in less than a decade, according to Chief Deputy Patty Perlow. That means the district attorney’s office funnels hundreds of defendants accused of nonviolent crimes — such as forgery, criminal trespass and theft of goods worth less than $750 — into a program that fast-tracks their cases. If defendants agree to pay restitution and take a correspondence course about the impact of their bad behavior, their charges will be dismissed.

Perlow was exasperated last year after winning a felony conviction against a man who stole shoes from the University of Oregon bookstore, then injured a security officer by slamming him against a wall. The judge sentenced the man to a year in the Lane County jail, but because of budget cuts, there wasn’t room for him. The man served less than a day.

“It was embarrassing,” Perlow said. “It was a waste of everyone’s time.”

And yet, in the press, this reality barely registers, because it flies in the face of the preferred media storyline: 

America incarcerates more people than (Iran, China, Germany, South Africa).  See how this article on the Webb/Specter task force summarizes such comparisons, in lieu of a discussion of the reality of crime in America:

More than one percent of adults in the United States sit behind bars. . .

By comparison, China, with a population of one billion people, was second in the world with 1.5 million inmates, followed by Russia with 890,000 people in the slammer, the study said.

America’s incarceration rate exceeds that of nations like South Africa and Iran.

By comparison, 93 people in Germany are in prison for every 100,000 people, including minors, the Washington-based independent research group said. The rate is about eight time higher in the United States: 750 per 100,000.

Therefore, such stories go, incarceration in America is illegitimate. 

What is left out of this story, of course, is the relative prevalence of crime in America.  I defer to a reader:

I used to live in Slovenia, which has a crime rate approaching zero. Believe me, to live without real fear of crime is an incredibly liberating feeling. Conversely, when I lived in Brooklyn, I did actually have to live every minute looking over my shoulder, a way of living that is really draining.                                                                                                                                                                                                              -Mark Nuckols

The following, simple fact seems beyond the comprehension of nearly every daily newspaper in the United States:

We have more people in prison because we have more criminals committing crime here.

What Is Your Personal “Aggregate Burden of Crime”?

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On Tuesday, I wrote about the debate that’s raging over incarcerating convicts or releasing them to “community sentencing” programs of one type or another.  Proponents of community or alternative sentencing argue that we save tax dollars when people convicted of crimes get to stay at home for therapeutic or rehabilitative interventions instead of being removed from the community and sentenced to prison terms. 

However, these anti-incarceration advocates do not count the additional costs that arise whenever a person under “community control” (or a prisoner released early) commits more crime – costs that range from additional police and justice system expenses to the injury, fear, suffering, and financial losses experienced directly by their victims and indirectly by other community members.

A friend in Atlanta describes his own “aggregate burden of crime”  (I have removed some identifying details):

“When I first moved in, and the house was about to fall down, I was burglarized twice, believe it or not.  Looking at the condition of the house, you would have thought, this guy has nothing.  But, they came in twice anyway.  Didn’t take anything, because the boys next door heard them and ran them away.  I wasn’t there.  However, they had everything electronics in my suitcase, ready to go.

I then spent about $1,300 for the installation of the security system, and $28.95 a month for monitoring.  Later on, after I bought the TV, $1,300 for flat screen, which they took, I upgraded the system and cost me another $300 – $400 dollars.  J.W. had to come by and re-install the deadbolts that are keyed on both sides.  I know the argument about flippers on the inside lock (code for the city), but I changed them to keyed on the inside.

He charged me about $250.00 for everything, because he also drilled into the windows, with those metal cylinders to stop the opening of the windows.

Now, my nerves after those next two times of coming into my house almost made me sell the house and move.  But, to where?”

That’s $350 per year for home monitoring, $1,850 for installation of safety devices, and $1300 in losses.  Not to mention the home and auto insurance rates he must pay to live in the inner city, which are substantially higher than elsewhere; the high taxes he must pay to support the police and the courts, and the immutable fact that many offenders already live on the public dime, in subsidized housing with subsidized food and subsidized healthcare, all paid by the same people they victimize. 

And what cost do you put on peace of mind, after being broken into four times?

Those are the direct costs incurred by one victim who is surely not the only victim targeted by the offenders who broke into his house.  Does anyone break into only one stranger’s home?  This is not Les Misérables: they are not stealing bread to feed a starving child.  It is a lifestyle, one that simultaneously destroys the lifestyles of decent, compassionate, hard-working people like my friend. 

***

Criminologists in America do calculate the “aggregate burden of crime” here, but these statistics (see here, here, and here) never make it into public debates or newspaper articles.  Why not?  Why is the debate about incarceration versus “community sentencing,” or “three strikes laws,” or other crime-stopping initiatives carried out without any acknowledgement of the financial burdens communities face when offenders are not incarcerated? 

In contrast, in Britain and Wales, the “Economic and Social Costs of Crime Against Individuals and Households” statistics have been part of the public debate about crime policy for several years.  Here are the official 2003/2004 numbers.  Costs counted include: physical and emotional impact on direct victims, value of property stolen, property damaged/destroyed, victim services, lost output (significant for murders), health services, criminal justice costs, and costs in anticipation of crime.

Rather than relying on the Pew Center Report, which deceptively promises vast savings every time a convict doesn’t go to prison, it’s time for American journalists to begin seeking out better data on recidivism, crime costs, and the actual effectiveness and expenses arising from drug courts, other community sentencing programs, and judges’ decisions to simply let offenders go without punishment.

Outrage of the Week: Crayons and Gym Memberships, or Incarceration? Which Actually Costs Less?

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A really interesting article in U.S.A. Today on the national push to get prisoners out of jail and into community programs.  

In a hushed conference room overlooking the town’s main drag, eight convicted felons, including an aspiring amateur fighter, brandish bright Crayola markers.

Their goal is to match their personalities to one of four colors. Tim Witte, 27, on probation for evading arrest, eyes the task as if sizing up a fellow middle-weight on Kansas’ gritty cage-fighting circuit. Witte and two drug offenders settle on orange.

The color, indicative of a restless, risk-taking personality, is the hue of choice for most offenders, says Michelle Stephenson, the corrections officer leading the unusual exercise. . . .

The class is part of a state effort to save millions of dollars in prison costs by changing how criminals are treated. Kansas is closing some prisons, boosting support for offenders on probation and declining to return them to prison for every probation violation. . . .

Probation officers now help offenders find work, health care, housing, counseling, transportation and child care.

During the past several months, for example, the office spent $110 to cover an offender’s utility payments; $500 for a rent payment; $600 for six bikes the office loans to get to job interviews; $77 for a YMCA membership to help an offender improve his physical condition and $320 for eight anger-management counseling sessions.

All of the assistance is aimed at keeping offenders out of costly prison cells, although Kansas officials say they are only beginning to review whether the offenders who received the assistance have committed new offenses.

Note that very little of this long article actually addresses the “against community sentencing” side, compared to the well-funded and well-placed “pro-community sentencing” activists.  The outspoken Joshua Marquis, alone, is quoted speaking in favor of incarceration. 

Note, too, that in the article, the Pew Center Study is quoted uncritically — even though their analysis of “cost savings with alternative sentencing” leaves out the cost of additional crimes that are committed by probationers and parolees who could be in prison at the time.  

Anti-incarceration advocacy groups like The Sentencing Project have deep pockets to fund their efforts to reduce prison sentences, free offenders to the community, and roll back the clock on the fragile gains made by victim advocates against recidivists over the last two decades.  The Sentencing Project’s “research” is advocacy-based, not objectivity-based, yet it is often reported as fact.  No sooner did we get some teeth into sentencing laws that removed repeat offenders from the streets than push-back began to free even the most prolific criminals.  

As federal funding for law enforcement begins to trickle down to the states, expect much of it to be diverted into efforts that actually release larger numbers of offenders into communities.  Those who feel that their money should not be spent on “alternatives to incarceration” will need to stay on top of grants coming to their cities and stay vocal with their legislators.  It’s clear that the media — even U.S.A. Today, which usually features thoughtful crime coverage — is not doing a very good job of covering both sides of this debate.

The Pew Center Study, Repeat Offenders, and the Real Price of Crime

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From The Tennessean

Cons commit crimes after early release

Sentencing guidelines enable repeat offenders

A college student is kidnapped, brutalized and murdered. A mother looks up from changing her baby’s diaper to find a gun pointing in her face. A 62-year-old man is bludgeoned with a baseball bat in a mall parking lot.

The crimes share one trait, aside from their brutality. In each case, the person charged with the offense was an ex-convict, out on probation or parole — a situation Tennessee prosecutors and law enforcement leaders say is all too common because of how the state sentences its convicted criminals. . . .

Amanda Sue Kelley, 19, was arrested seven times last year on charges that ranged from drug possession to domestic assault and theft. In January, police say, she wrenched open the door of a parked car, pointed a gun at a woman changing her 13-month-old daughter’s diaper in the back seat, and demanded cash. . . .

It costs about $63.90 a day to keep someone behind bars in Tennessee. A day monitoring someone’s probation or parole costs $2.95.

“We really need to do a better job of sorting our offenders by risk,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project. “This is less and less an issue of being tough on crime or soft on crime and more an issue of giving the taxpayers a better return on their dollars.” 

The Pew Center study, “One in One Hundred,” has attracted a lot of attention — but less obvious is the Center’s ideological anti-incarceration bias.  The Center did not include what is known as the “Aggregate Burden of Crime” in its analysis of the price of incarceration versus the price of community sentencing.  The aggregate burden of crime, which measures the total economic effect of crime on victims, communities and the offender, offers a picture of the real cost of incarcerating convicts versus letting them go free — not a one-line argument comparing the day-to-day cost of probation to the day-to-day cost of incarceration.

There is no excuse for excluding the other costs that inevitably arise when people who should be in prison commit additional crimes — unless the study is simply designed to sway public opinion towards letting convicts back on the streets.  

In 1996, the Department of Justice issued a far more comprehensive, less ideological study called “Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look”  which placed the cost of crime for victims at $450 billion dollars per year.  And in 1999, Professor David A. Anderson published another study, titled “The Aggregate Burden of Crime,” which placed the annual cost of crime at 1.7 trillion dollars a year.  Here is a description of his study:

Anderson takes into account all costs which would not exist in an ideal society totally free of crime. That includes the cost of private preventative measures such as locks, safety lighting, alarm systems, fencing and private security guards. In addition it calculates the cost of crime-related injuries and deaths, including medical care, lost workdays, pain, and fear, and the opportunity costs of time spent preventing, carrying out and serving prison terms for criminal activity. Finally, it mentions a $28 billion decrease in property values of real estate and buildings that are cheaper than similar facilities because they are located in high-crime areas. The costs associated with living in the suburbs to avoid crime in the city center are also discussed, since there are significant costs for activities such as commuting and parking. 

If the Pew Center had really intended to quantify the difference in cost between incarcerating offenders and releasing them to the community, they would have had to first figure out the number of crimes committed each year by offenders who could have been sentenced to prison, or kept there without parole, but who were instead released to commit more crime.  Then they would have had to plug in the price of this additional victimization.  Absent that, they are operating on the assumption that no parolees or probationers ever commit crimes.  

Victim and community expenses appear nowhere in the Pew Center report.  When you focus narrowly on the price differential between daily incarceration expenses and parole/community control expenses, you are intentionally excluding the bulk of expenses born by innocent people — victims, bystanders, and neighborhoods — who have been impacted by illegal activities.  That’s not just bad public policy: it’s dishonest public policy.