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Two Crimes I Didn’t Report, Part 3

I’ve been writing this week about the predictable reactions to the semi-annual release of the Uniform Crime Report statistics.

In Atlanta, much is being made of the fact that violent crime is down.  However, burglaries and larcenies are up — substantially.  Why might this be?

Maybe it has something to do with the courts.

In 1994, Georgia passed a “serious violent felony” law imposing a minimum ten-year sentence for the following violent crimes: murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, and aggravated sexual battery (here is an interesting law review article by Brian D. Boreman on the law).

Georgia’s law varies from minimum mandatory laws in some other states: it assigns strict “first-strike” minimums to a short list of unambiguously heinous crimes, rather than including crimes like burglary and theft.

For “serious, violent felonies,” the law removes judicial discretion:

[A]ny person convicted of a serious violent felony . . . shall be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of ten years and no portion of the mandatory minimum sentence imposed shall be suspended, stayed, probated, deferred, or withheld by the sentencing court and shall not be reduced by any form of pardon, parole, or commutation of sentence.

Meanwhile, the legislature essentially left property crime and other felonies to the discretion of the judges.  There are repeat offender laws applying to these crimes, but they still contain a default to judicial discretion.

We all know how that washes out.

Violent crime began dropping in Georgia and in other states as soon as minimum mandatory laws were put into place.  Is this surprising?  These laws were enacted precisely because people were committing five, ten, or more violent crimes before any judge bothered to remove them from the streets, if then (of course, the defense bar and its judges have vigorously sought and found ways around these laws, but that is a subject for another day).  Deterrence works.  Incarceration works.

The fact that incarceration works, however, is not a message that sits well with criminologists and journalists.  The effect, and success of these laws does not receive much academic attention or news coverage. Exactly one year ago, when the activist Pew Foundation began beating the anti-incarceration drum again, Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), had this to say in a letter to the Washington Post (and it speaks volumes that he was forced to say it in a letter, in response to the Post’s anti-incarceration biased coverage):

The Price of Leniency

The June 12 news story “New Criminal Record: 7.2 Million,” on the number of people under supervision in the nation’s criminal justice system, reported on the financial burden of running correctional systems without mentioning the savings resulting from crimes averted. Experience suggests that shortened sentences and reduced supervision of offenders released from prison carry a higher cost, especially in human terms, than the savings these shortsighted policies generate.

In 2006, the most recent year for which complete data are available, police received the fewest reports of violent crime and property crime since 1977. What was the cause? Research has shown that, with some exceptions, crime rates decline as the incarceration rate rises. In other words, while the number of people under correctional supervision has gone up, crime has gone down.

Research on state prisoners shows that among drug offenders, nearly 67 percent were rearrested within three years of release. For violent offenders, nearly 62 percent were rearrested within three years of release. Overall, more than 67 percent of prisoners were rearrested within three years for committing new offenses.

The cost of these new crimes goes beyond prisons. The most conservative estimate for the cost of violent and property crimes in the United States is more than $17 billion a year — and that’s just direct, immediate cost. This leaves out such costs as crime victims’ struggle to be made whole.

Let there be no mistake — releasing criminals early may save money in the short term, but not in the long term.

Jeffrey L. Sedgwick

Director

Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice

“[C]rime rates decline as the incarceration rate rises.”  Georgia has a law that removed judicial discretion (read: leniency) from cases involving violent crime but no law that effectively restricts judicial discretion in cases of property crime: violent crime is down in Atlanta, but property crime is up.

I said a few days ago that I would be talking about two crimes I did not report to the police.  The second one happened when I was in Atlanta two weeks ago.  I was at the Wal-Mart on Cobb Parkway, in south Marietta.  Walking from my car to the store, I saw a man going up and down the rows of cars, looking inside each one of them.  When I came out half an hour later, he was near my car, checking the door handle of a car nearby.  I noticed an SUV waiting behind him.  I walked towards the man, then past him, and when I turned around, he jumped into the SUV.

The man looked suspicious as I was going into the store.  When I saw him again, still looking into car windows, I was sure he was casing cars.

So why didn’t I do something?  I was overwhelmed at the time, dealing with a death in the family.  I didn’t trust my instincts.  I knew I could not handle being put in the position of having to argue with some recalcitrant 911 operator with an attitude, as I had done so many times before in Atlanta [the 911 system in Atlanta is a criminal’s best friend].

And I was intimidated.  I hadn’t been paying attention until I saw the man the second time, and by then I was ten feet from him.  It was the middle of the day, and the only other people in that part of the parking lot were a man with a small child.  What was I going to do, say: “Hey, you, stop looking in cars”?  “Citizen arrest”?   It would have been stupid to say anything, but I think showed on my face that I realized what the man was doing.

Once I got in my car, I thought of what might have happened if somebody came out while the man was trying to break into their car.  He was a wired and nasty-looking person: what if someone startled him?  What about the man with his child in a cart, the cart in the driving lane?  What if somebody had a gun?  The experience was unnerving.  Yet, if the man had been caught, would he even have been punished, or simply let go by some overwhelmed prosecutor or judge basking in magnanimousness?

For every crime that gets reported, how many actually take place?

Is theft really non-violent?

Chilling Undercounting of Crime

At the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Conference, Ted Gest from Crime and Justice News had some interesting things to say about crime under-reporting.  Murder statistics are usually considered the gold standard, statistically, since it’s hard to misplace a body.  But maybe not so hard, since Detroit managed to “lose” 100 of them last year:

Contrary to FBI statistics, more than 100 Detroit homicides were left off the books last year, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told the Detroit Free Press. Worthy said the Detroit Police Department underreported that 306 people were killed in 2008. She said the homicide number is actually 423.

“What’s a couple hundred murders between friends?” Gest asked.  He also reminded participants that the UCR simply does not include all crimes:

“[T]hose crime figures are very incomplete. Really, it’s a report of crimes that were brought to the attention of local law enforcement – that’s a huge caveat. Some local law enforcement doesn’t even report them to the FBI.”

In addition to the crimes reported in the UCR, there are crimes that go unreported — vast numbers of them.  Then there is intentional manipulation of crime statistics.  Mark Fazlollah, one of the nation’s best-regarded crime reporters, spoke about intentional falsification of crime statistics in cities including Atlanta:

Mark Fazlollah of The Philadelphia Inquirer pointed to a series his paper did looking at the falsification of crime statistics in Philadelphia, which led to revelations of similar mis-reporting in Atlanta, Baltimore and New York. “The phony stats were known for many years,” said Fazlollah. “Aggravated assaults were easily changed to simple assaults…Precinct commanders used to joke about this, but behind those statistics are real victims.”

Ten years ago, Fazlollah’s work on falsifying statistics in Philadelphia helped uncover important revelations about the APD’s crime-counting.  If Detroit can lose 100 murders, should Atlantans feel assured that their worries about crime are mere “perceptions”?

That Perception Thing

The release of the FBI’s semi-annual report on crime has provided Atlanta’s pathologically tone-deaf Mayor and the Chief-of-Police-In-Absentia with another opportunity to shower contempt on every citizen of the city.  What else could inspire the Mayor to repeat the words, “the city is ‘safer now than it has been in decades’,” given her knowledge of public feelings on her attitude?

Apparently, according to City Hall, a slight drop in the still unacceptable high rates of some crime in some areas, a rise in crime rates in other areas, and a sharp rise in property crime rates is cause to break out the bubbly.

How much of this drop in crime in some areas of the city can be attributed to heroic, time-consuming, and expensive efforts by neighborhood groups and individuals?  How much higher (than the 7.6% increase) would the property crime rate climb if people weren’t bankrupting themselves paying for alarm systems, burglar bars, security cameras, guns, and off-duty cops to patrol their neighborhoods?

Should the burden of preventing crime fall so heavily on residents who already pay the city to protect them?

Chief Pennington, bizarrely, has refused to comment on the FBI report.  Does the guy even show up for work anymore?  Why has the City Council caved to demands by the usual activists to re-re-re-investigate city cops in shooting incidents (after the appropriate authorities, and the FBI, the courts, and everybody else already investigated/prosecuted/sentenced the officers involved), but they seem utterly incurious about Pennington’s performance, not to mention grotesquely timid on the subject of denying injured cops their medical benefits?

Can we get one public statement from the Chief in exchange for the latest kangaroo court for cops who put their lives on the line?

Chief of Police is a political gig. Some chiefs manage to rise above the politics — in places other than Atlanta.  The national organization representing police executives is a political organization, too, which explains why the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum comes down on the side of pooh-pooing that Real Clear Politics report ranking Atlanta as the second-most dangerous large city nationwide, by population:

The ranking, compiled by the Web site Real Clear Politics, was derived by dividing the total crimes detailed in the FBI’s report by city population. Atlanta’s per-capita crime rate measured at 16 percent.

“Determining whether a city is safe or not is not as easy as that,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which has representatives from law enforcement agencies nationwide.

“That’s a very simplistic approach.”

All due respect to Wexler, what would be a “less simplistic” way of determining the prevalence of crime?  Criminologists, of course, have many answers to this question.  Unfortunately, their answers involve using very complicated number-crunching, statistic-discombobulating, and hide-the-peanut tomfoolery to achieve one overweening goal:

to deny the problem of crime

What is harder to deny is this:

  • 1.4 million violent crimes,
  • 10 million property crimes,
  • 17,000 murders
  • and nearly 100,000 rapes is a tidal wave of suffering, violence, fear and wasted lives.

The irascible Randall Cobb, one of those community activists who probably clocks ungodly volunteer hours trying to do the job the Mayor and Chief are paid to do, had this to say:

“Franklin and [Atlanta Chief of Police Richard] Pennington have been trying to get us to drink the Kool-Aid for 12 months now,” said Randall Cobb, safety chairman for the Midtown Neighborhood Association. “The biggest thing they’re doing is refusing to take responsibility for crime in this city.”

Amen.

Tomorrow: two crimes I did not report…

Fulton County, Georgia to Put More Defendants Back on the Streets (Translation Provided)

Why not spend the money actually trying the cases instead?  Why bother having a justice system at all?

Court Program to Save Fulton $5.5 Million

A program that began April 1 will increase the number of defendants given pretrial release is expected to save Fulton County taxpayers more than $5.5 million a year in jail costs.

That’s “savings” as in “we’re going to shuffle these costs further down the line in some crazed and futile attempt to get through this budget year, knowing full well that our deception will be papered over by our criminologist friends (thank you, Pew Center!!!) who are busy inventing statistics that don’t take into account the added costs arising from additional victimizations, additional police investigations, and additional court cases that will result from releasing offenders pre-trial — not to mention the overall effect of further reducing the dwindling consequences for committing crimes.”

The Superior Court of Fulton County’s Pretrial Services will operate the new Intensive Supervision Program (ISP) which was recently funded by the Fulton County Commission. The program will provide rigorous supervision of defendants who don’t qualify for release under existing criteria.

That’s “defendants who don’t qualify for release under existing criteria” as in “we already let a shocking number of people go before trial or case disposition — boy, you would probably be really surprised to see some of the people we let go — but we’re still so utterly disorganized and underfunded and distracted and in some cases, just lazy, that we’re going to swing open those prison gates just a little bit wider.”

Over the past decade the Court’s existing Pretrial Services program has racked up an impressive record of reducing jail costs while ensuring that over 95 percent of program defendants show up for all scheduled court hearings.

That’s “over 95% of program defendants show up for all scheduled court hearings” as in “5% of the people who do something serious enough to end up in jail don’t show up in court after we let them go before trial.  Since we have an acknowledged backlog of some 6,000 cases, that’s 300 absconders just from the cases that are backlogged.”

The new ISP will supervise about 150 additional defendants per month.

Candidates for the program are:

• Youthful defendants charged with non-violent crimes that the Judiciary deem appropriate for release if heightened supervision is available.

That’s “appropriate for release if heightened supervision is available” as in “since we already release juvenile offenders almost automatically, even if they have been involved in home invasions or gun crimes or assaults, these kids are really scary, but we’re going to let the go anyway if heightened supervision is available.

• Defendants whose community ties cannot be “verified” or those who have not established a six month residency in the Atlanta metropolitan area
•Defendants, with little or no criminal history, charged with property crimes who do not meet normal pretrial release criteria.

That’s “little or no criminal history” as in “pretty much everything is little criminal history these days, especially since we keep giving people first-offender status for their sixth or eighth crime” and “property crimes that do not meet normal pretrial release criteria” as in ” kicking down your front door and luckily nobody got killed.  This time.”

•Defendants referred to the ISP by a judge.

That’s “referred by a judge” as in “like the judge who let rapper T.I. free on a gun charge because he’s rich, or the judge who let murderer Shamal Thompson go because he said he was a wedding dress designer.”

ISP release requirements may include:

That’s “may include” as in “not will include or must include, but may include.  Or, thus, may not.”

•In-person office contact twice a week
•Weekly field visits to defendant’s home/employer
•Curfew
•Electronic Monitoring
•Seek full-time employment if not already employed.
•Attend in-house life skills programs or community service programs.
•Be employed or actively seeking employment or school
•Defendants without high school diploma must enter GED program
•Social service agency referrals where appropriate
•Immediate sanctions in response to program infractions

That’s “immediate sanctions” as in “is that anything like the sanctions attempted murderer Joshua Norris didn’t receive when he threatened two young women with a gun while he was out on bail for repeatedly shooting another person, as in, no sanctions, unless you count being praised for stayin’ in school and then having all your other violent gun charges reduced to community service by fawning court officers as a sanction?”

The ISP will notify the Court, District Attorney, and Defense Counsel of any violations of release conditions.

That’s “will notify . . . of any violations” as in “What?  They do this already, don’t they?”

***

Here is a troubling statistic: the Department of Justice reports that in 2002 (the latest figures available)  one-third of all defendants arrested for felony crimes were “active” in the system at the time of their arrest — in other words, on parole, probation, or pre-trial release.

Here is another troubling statistic: “[t]he Fulton county jail currently has a backlog of about 880 prisoners who have been awaiting trial — most for felonies like murder, rape or armed robbery.”

32% of the people booked into the system for new felony crimes are under court supervision yet on the streets when they commit those crimes, and most of the people currently incarcerated but available for pre-trial release in Fulton County are charged with felonies like murder, rape, and armed robbery.

Hypothetically, how much money could Fulton County save if it reduced the felony crime rate by 32%  —  by not letting people out of jail while awaiting trial or finishing their sentences?

Vaut mieux prévenir que guérir. Except, apparently, in the Fulton County Courts.

“Defendants Have the Right to Remain Silent. . . Victims Have the Right to be Heard”

I found this quote on the website for the Larimer County, Colorado District Attorney’s office. It is a neat sentiment: well-intentioned, not overly ambitious. It is, in other words, a fitting description of the aims of victims’ rights laws.

It is also utterly untrue.

The “right to be heard” is not a right in the ordinary sense of the term. It is not actually enjoyed by the vast majority of crime victims. There is no criminal court where victims may go to plead with authorities to take up their case, if theirs is one of the vast majority of crimes that go un-prosecuted for any one of a hundred reasons.

Other than murder, there is far less than a guarantee that even serious crimes will be taken up by the court. And prosecution rates for murder are far less than most people would imagine: authorities in Houston last week announced that they were stepping up efforts to “do something” about 600 murder cases that had foundered despite identifying a suspect:

More than 600 accused killers from the past four decades have yet to see the inside of a Harris County courtroom for their crimes, according to the Harris County district attorney’s office.

Records show that a handful of those jumped bail, fleeing the area before they could be prosecuted. But most were suspects who were never arrested, said Assistant District Attorney Russell Turbeville. . .

The push to find the fugitives was sparked in part by the case of Tho Minh Quach, who was charged with murdering his neighbor more than 20 years ago, but who disappeared and now will never stand trial because investigators did not try hard enough to find him.

One county, forty years, six hundred un-prosecuted murder suspects. How can this be?

In reality, virtually all crimes result in nobody being held accountable, a situation that has taken an extraordinary toll on hundreds of millions (yes, hundreds of millions) of crime victims since criminologist Milton S. Eisenhower lamented the 1 1/2% incarceration-for-crime rate in 1969. Here is Eisenhower speaking in 1970, twenty-two years before crime rates peaked in the early 1990’s:

There remains one very obvious reason for mounting crime in our society: the increasing failure of law enforcement agencies to cope with it. Consider the grim statistics. Probably 10 million serious crimes were committed in the United States last year. About half of these crimes were never reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only 12 percent of those 10 million crimes resulted in the arrest of anyone. Only 6 percent resulted in the conviction of anyone, and this 6 percent included many pleas to lesser offenses. Only 1 1/2 percent resulted in the incarceration of anyone. And of those who were incarcerated, most will return to prison another time for additional offenses. As Lloyd Cutler . . . remarked on these statistics: ‘It would be hard to say that crime does not pay. The sad fact is that our criminal justice system, as presently operated, does not deter, does not detect, does not convict, and does not correct.’ (Violence: The Crisis of American Confidence, ed. Hugh David Graham, Johns Hopkins Press, 1971)

Hundreds of millions of victims of unresolved crimes walk the streets, and yet, virtually nobody, not even a fraction of a percent, resorts to vigilantism — this despite hysterical claims by mostly-liberal commentators that we must remain vigilant to hold back the horrifying threat posed to society by emotionally wounded, vengeful victims of crime.

I have long wondered why it is that so many people to the left of the political center despise and fear victims so much more than they despise or fear criminals themselves. Self-loathing, I think lies at the root of this phenomenon, self-loathing busked up by education at the hands of other self-loathing people who are entirely convinced that our justice system is over-reaching and cruel.

To say that the types of statistics mentioned above do not enter into classroom discussions of justice is to wildly understate the case. The only type of literature taken seriously in the classroom is the literature of the wrongly accused (too numerous to mention), or rightfully-accused-but-persecuted-anyway (Orestes, Oedipus Rex, The Crucible, The Stranger, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Clockwork Orange: how the mighty have fallen).

There is also the litmus test, administered with fierce regularity, that one must show the right type and quantity of empathy for criminals before you may speak about criminal justice at all. This is the price of the ticket — no similar admission fee exists regarding victims, save a few politically sanctioned types.

In the face of such orthodoxy, or rather, repression of facts, perhaps it isn’t surprising that so many people agree, with so very little evidence, that crime victims are too powerful, when they are actually legally powerless.

The exception to this powerlessness, now, consists of being allowed to offer a victim impact statement after the accused has been found guilty of the crime, during the time when his representatives may plead for lenience from the judge. Even this right, however, is strongly opposed by those who feel that the presence of victims in courtrooms represents a sort of perversion of pure justice. Character witnesses for the convict, such people argue, are only right, to keep the vengeful passions of the public in check, but character witnesses against them are — just awful.

When victim advocates began pushing for Victims’ Rights Laws in the 1980’s, reaction was extreme. These laws were written to provide extremely limited rights to the small fraction of victims whose cases actually made it into a courtroom, including the right to be notified about hearings, the right to be notified when one’s offender is up for parole or is being released, and the right to make a victim impact statement before the judge. Victims’ rights laws do not in any way impede on the vast rights afforded defendants before, during and after prosecution: in fact, their modesty underscores the degree to which victims have fewer rights than the public itself, let alone criminals.

Nevertheless, defense attorneys, law professors, and editorial writers (defenseattorneyslawprofessorseditorialwriters) behaved as if granting victims even extremely limited rights to speak in the sentencing phase of the judicial process was tantamount to bringing back witch-burnings, fueled, of course, with trampled copies of the Bill of Rights.

Tom Teepen, a nationally syndicated columnist based in Atlanta, compared the 1999 Victims Rights Amendment to a murderer stalking an innocent and endangered United States Constitution: “The Constitution has just ducked another bullet, but beware the ricochet”; “You can’t be sure this monster won’t walk again,” he wrote, and, nastily:

You almost have to feel sorry for the politicians working the law-and-order hustle. Crime has been falling sharply for several years. . . It is, in short, getting hard to sell criminals to the electorate.

This, in a year when there were 15,000 murders, 90,000 reported rapes, and nearly a million aggravated assaults.

Teepen never writes about criminals with such sneering contempt. His colleague, Cynthia Tucker, has written movingly about crime victimization at other times, but she called the Victims’ Rights Amendment “a crime in itself,” and accused victims of wanting too much:

The system has already kicked in on behalf of the victim — conducting an investigation, arresting a suspect, proceeding to take the suspect to trial.

Gee, thanks. Except when it doesn’t, which is nearly all of the time.

Tucker went on to accuse all politicians who speak up for victims of “pandering” to society’s hatefulness, prejudice, and barely-suppressed violence, then accused the public directly of wishing to undermine all rights of the accused. That the public, let alone victims, might be innocent of nefarious intentions until proven guilty is not the way this game gets played:

This latest bit of pandering by the vice president [Gore] is disgusting but not surprising. It has become an article of faith among centrist Democrats that a tough law-and-order stance in essential to win elections. . . . As hard as it is for most Americans to accept, a suspect is innocent of a crime until convicted by a jury of his peers (or until he pleads guilty).

In twenty years of advocating for and working with crime victims, I have never met a victim who wanted to undermine the justice system or see the wrong person go to jail for a crime. Such accusations are sheer hysteria, and like most hysteria, they arise from a reality that is inverse to the charge.

Meanwhile, In the Groves of Academe and the Forests of Newsprint

There’s no such thing as a crime problem. It’s just a perception problem, you silly hysterics. From the Houston Chronicle, which wants you to know that daring to be worried about crime is the only crime problem that matters:

In the words of a statistician, the decrease in criminality appears to have an inverse relationship, at least for now, with political rhetoric on crime, which has ramped up in recent months.

Is it possible that continually heaping contempt upon the concerns of newspaper readers has a non-inverse relationship to the decline of newspaper subscribers?

“It’s probably very difficult for any politician to acknowledge that the problem of crime is decreasing, because that undermines the importance of the issue,” said Dennis Longmire, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University who has studied public attitudes toward crime. “Politicians use a fear of crime to garner support and get voters’ attention.”

Or perhaps the public is concerned about crime because they do not want to see the fragile progress of recent months dissipate. Or perhaps crime rates are still astonishingly high despite a modest drop in incidents. Or perhaps people are successfully preventing certain incidents of crime, but only because they are remaining alert and focused on the issue, even though reporters and academicians find this more troubling than crime itself.

This type of canned denouncement echoes recent statements by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Chief of Police Richard Pennington, both of whom responded to truly horrifying incidents of crime by scolding the public for caring.

Public concern is not going to go away, not in Houston, not in Atlanta, not anywhere. As daily newspapers tank and the public begins to question “studies” put forth by academics who don’t even pretend to objectivity, the internet is stepping in. You can expect more accusations of “vigilantism” and “hysteria about crime” from the usual suspects. And you can ignore them, too.

Mission Creep: Burglars With Drug Problems. And Drug Courts With Burglar Problems. And Reporters With Truthiness Problems.

Atlanta is not the only city where recidivists with long records of serious crime are being permitted to avoid jail sentences because they are also drug addicts. From the Ithaca Journal, Ithaca, New York:

In a plea deal with prosecutors, a Groton woman charged with taking part in burglaries in three counties has been sentenced to time served, five years probation and ordered to attend drug court for local crimes.

Judge John Rowley sentenced Julianna Salerno, 30, on Friday after she pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary in Tompkins County Court. Salerno admitted that she waited in a vehicle and “acted as a lookout” for Daniel Samson, 25, of Groton, when he broke in and stole items from a building at Treman State Park.

Salerno and Samson were charged with six counts of third-degree burglary, four counts of third-degree criminal mischief, and petit larceny, a misdemeanor. . .

They were also linked to Cortland County burglaries at the Greek Peak Ski Resort and Hope Lake, and Cayuga County burglaries at Salmon Creek Sports, Grisamore Farms, Badman’s Bushel Baskets Produce, Ron’s Corner Store, Triangle Restaurant and Longpoint State Park, according to law-enforcement officials. [Ithaca Journal, “Groton Woman Receives Sentence,” 4/27/09, fee for viewing]

More than a dozen burglaries, and this woman is being offered probation and community-based treatment, instead of conviction and incarceration, because she has a drug problem. This type of story, which plays out every day, severely challenges the conventional wisdom that our prisons are stuffed with otherwise innocent drug addicts serving long sentences for merely possessing drugs. Claims that prison populations have expanded because states are locking up mere addicts are not true either, as this chart on inmates from the Department of Justice clearly shows:

The problem, again, is lenient judges, not to mention a system so steeped in anti-incarceration ideology that the mere idea that someone might expect to go to prison for committing a dozen burglaries can no longer even be taken for granted. The judge who sentenced Salerno apparently felt the need to say out loud that there was some possibility that she might go to jail despite her addiction:

While acknowledging Salerno’s actions may have been a “drug-related crime spree,” Rowley told her that she’ll be facing incarceration if she doesn’t adhere to her probation terms and treatment programs.

In other words, Salerno was permitted to get away with at least a dozen crimes against others, but if she messes up in rehab, a crime against herself, then the state might decide get serious with her. Is it any wonder that people have a hard time believing that the justice system is there to protect the rights of anyone except criminals?

Drug courts were never supposed to be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for people with long offense records. They were supposed to be used to divert first-time offenders whose primary offense was drug-related. But even the term “drug-related” has been twisted: now, apparently, any crime committed by a drug addict is “drug-related,” as the judge in the case above above uses the term.

Another example of abusing both the concept of drug courts and the concept of “drug-related” crime, from the Baltimore Sun — note the reporter’s empathy for the criminal, and his disturbing efforts to downplay his crimes:

Break-In Artist Finally Gets Into Drug Program

Peter Hermann | Baltimore Crime Beat

Michael D. Sydnor Jr. is finally getting the help that he needs.

This is no small accomplishment, as District Judge George M. Lipman made cle[a]r when he learned that the drug-addicted defendant suspected of fueling a plague of car break-ins in downtown Baltimore had been accepted into an inpatient treatment program.

“Hallelujah,” the judge said, a pronouncement not often heard from the bench, and certainly not from this jurist, who apologized several times for being too preachy during Friday morning’s docket at the Hargrove District Court in South Baltimore. He told one man, upset that being sent off to jail meant his car would be towed, “I don’t wipe people’s noses.”

No, the judge doesn’t wipe people’s noses, but that probably needs to be put into the record, just to be clear, because he otherwise plays head cheerleader for repeat felons, as does the reporter. The victims? Well, never mind them: insurance will cover their losses.

Here is reporter Peter Herman’s heart-wrenching account of the court’s efforts to “help” Syndor. Note the way Syndor’s crimes become “petty,” “nonviolent,” and things that “drive people crazy” in the reporter’s hands, as if he is writing about some kid bouncing a basketball against a curb, not a repeat felon breaking into people’s cars, actually committing violent crimes, and betraying an utterly frightening disregard for the law:

I first wrote about Sydnor back in February, painting the 40-year-old as the face of a problem that drives residents crazy and tourists out of the city. Day after day, police reports of car break-ins pile up from Federal Hill, around the Inner Harbor and to the far edges of Canton.

Cell phones used to be the prized catch, but now navigational devices, iPods and iPhones are all the rage, usually stolen by addicts seeking electronics to hawk for a quick buck to score a quick high, a never-ending cycle of car-to-needle-to-car that ends up costing us thousands upon thousands of dollars in increased insurance premiums, car window repairs and replacements for stolen items.

Sydnor is charged with breaking into two cars in January at a garage at 218 N. Charles St., and authorities tell me he’s suspected in other break-ins at garages at The Baltimore Sun and Mercy Medical Center on North Calvert Street. He has been in jail for the past three months awaiting word on a coveted, hard-to-get drug treatment slot, and his cases will be put on hold until he gets through the program.

Police have arrested Sydnor more than 100 times in the past 15 years and he’s been convicted dozens of times, mostly of seemingly petty, nonviolent offenses.

“Mostly of seemingly petty” offenses? What about the other ones? This isn’t journalism: it’s a mutual admiration club with three members: judge, reporter, and predator.

And these admiration clubs so frequently get out of hand, which is why I question one of the main tenets of drug court: that the judge and the offender form a relationship in which the judge takes a personal interest in the offender’s progress. Do we really need to be encouraging judges to be even more enamored of their “patriarchial/matriarchial” roles vis-a-vis criminals? Haven’t enough innocent victims of crime paid, with their lives, for these special moments of bonding, Hallelujahs, slap on the backs, and all?

Shouldn’t people like this be getting their drug and alcohol counseling in prison, as they’re serving time for their crimes?

Given how he reacted while sentencing Sydnor, the judge in this case might as well have been openly berating the public for its failure to leap to Sydnor’s aid by providing him with a bed, on demand, in a drug rehab center. Yet even a brief perusal of Sydnor’s incredibly long record indicates serial neglect on the part of Baltimore’s judiciary to protect the public from this man’s violence. In 1996, Sydnor was found guilty of assault (neither petty nor non-violent). Even though he refused to acknowledge his guilt and was found guilty, he was given only a suspended, one-year sentence — in other words, no time at all. He quickly ended up back in jail again, this time for second-degree assault, and received one year again, another example of judicial carelessness.

The record grows worse as time goes by. Drug dealing, narcotics dealing, felony theft. There are 147 separate court appearances in his record. Assault, second degree, in 2005, some 97 cases in? One month in jail. And this is what reporter Peter Hermann calls a non-violent, minor record? Have they lost their minds, or do they just despise the law-abiding public?

What do you call a 100+ time offender, appearing before Judge Lipman (who is, unsurprisingly, a former defense attorney)?

You call him a good candidate for drug court.

Tools for Activists: Just Say No (To Releasing Dangerous Inmates)

With a hat tip to Chris, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Fulton Inmates to be Released Before Trial,” by Steve Visser.  It’s worth quoting extensively, to grasp precisely what is being done:

Fulton County court officials say they can save taxpayers $5.5 million a year by releasing suspected criminals from jail — inmates whom judges have balked at freeing because of the likelihood they would commit another crime before their trials.

How did they arrive at 5.5 million in savings?  Is it simply the difference between incarceration and probation for X prisoners for Y months?  What about the cost of anticipated new crimes — police, homeowner’s insurance, losses, new court dates, new attorney’s fees?  Pain and suffering?  Loss of public safety?

People won’t have to worry, said Superior Court Administrator Judy Cramer, because officials are starting a program Wednesday that ensures the bad boys will be watched a whole lot closer.

The county has hired five more staffers to closely supervise inmates who previously didn’t qualify for pre-trial release because of their character, lack of permanent address or who had weak community ties.

We know what some of the inmates who already qualify for release are capable of: what on earth are these people capable of?

The monitors will each carry a caseload of 35 released inmates they will meet with each week until the cases are resolved at trial, said court spokesman Don Plummer. The monitors will also meet regularly with family, employers or friends of the people they are supervising, Plummer said.

Five times 35 is 175.  Is that 175 armed robbers?  Aggravated assailants?  Since they have a set number already, then tell us the types of crimes this cohort is accused of committing. 

Plummer said the monitors would be able to meet the tough schedule of an average of seven meetings a day — along with other home and employment visits. “This isn’t going to be a featherbed job,” he said. “They are going to keep these people on a really tight leash.”

Imagine going to seven different appointments in one work-day.  Every day.  In Atlanta traffic.  Now imagine that half, or more, of your appointments are with people who do not have a permanent address and are prone to not show up for things because, well, they’re repeat offenders, and most of them have probably given a probation officer the slip before. 

Chief Jailer Riley Taylor doubted if a new supervised-release program would do much to take pressure off the jail — which is normally filled to its court-ordered capacity of 2,250 inmates — or off taxpayers’ wallets.

Thank you, Chief Taylor.  Thank you for talking to the public.  That’s what a public servant is supposed to do.  We could use some more of that.

“They want to fund the court system more to refine it more and they’ve tried that in the past and the math hasn’t worked out,” said Taylor. “Historically the jail population catches back up after new initiatives come into play.

“The whole system has to be retooled.”

So, basically, what the Chief Jailer is saying is that this won’t save $5.5 million dollars because the jail will just fill up again, which means that decisions are already being made to not incarcerate a certain percentage of law-breakers, or to release a certain percentage of law-breakers prior to trial, because the prison is already full.  And it’s not as if they’re going to start releasing high-risk prisoners without having released every possible allegedly low-risk prisoner first: what kind of sense would that make?  No, they’ve already released all the people who can cobble together a home address, or who haven’t committed a serious, violent crime yet — and they’re still beyond capacity, so they have to start releasing the people they know will commit more crimes, and have committed serious crimes.  And, yet, it “hasn’t worked before” (which means they have tried this before — at what human cost?).

The county has to find a way to resolve cases more quickly so that either jail inmates are freed or they are shipped to the prison system, Taylor said. More than 1,200 inmates — half the permitted population of 2,250 — have been in jail for more than a year without their cases coming to trial, according to county figures.

What has caused this backlog?

[Superior Court Administrator] Cramer acknowledged the “Intensive Supervision Program” won’t save any money if the jail beds remain full. He said it is among a several court-system initiatives designed to chip away at the county’s backlog of 6,000 unresolved, indicted cases.

The court system has just been funded to pay three retired judges to help clear up the backlog of murder, rape and robbery cases which now pack the jail, Cramer said. There is currently just one judge handling that workload.

Wow.  There is one judge handling murder, rape and robbery.  That’s crazy, especially in a county that has managed to waste million of dollars on corrupt boondoggles like FanPlex.  Oh, and this won’t work, but they’re doing it anyway.

The superior court has also dedicated one superior court judge to handle property crimes such as burglary and car theft, Cramer said, and is resolving most of those cases by pleas — often to probation — in less than two months, on average.

Break into somebody’s house, get probation.  Get out, break into somebody else’s house.  Pretty sweet.

The court system’s next aim is to get Superior Court judges — there are 19 in all — to develop uniform case-management standards for handling serious crimes that bog down in the court system, Cramer said.

Judges traditionally have run their courtrooms as they wished — with varying degrees of efficiency.

“Serious crimes” are “bogging down in the court system.”  That’s terrifying.  Since even breaking into someone’s home has been dumbed-down to a minor offense, what constitutes a serious crime these days? 

Enough is enough.  Fulton County Superior Court Judges need to come clean, now, about their efficiency rates.  Are they even working nine-to-five?  All of them?  If they are, and if they oppose this plan, the public needs to hear from them.  If there is a resource emergency in the courts (and there is), then why the silence from the judiciary?  Have they asked the legislature for money?  Have they appealed to the County Commission?  Do they have plans to request stimulus money instead of releasing felons to prey on the innocent?  Have they reached out to the public?  Why doesn’t the public know?  This is a situation begging for transparency.

In order to solve this problem, an essential mindset needs to change.  For far too long the courts have been an insular world, a closed loop in which scrutiny by the public is viewed with barely-concealed irritation, if not outright contempt.  ‘If you’re not a lawyer, then what the heck are you doing asking questions,’ is the attitude I’ve sometimes (not always) encountered — and all lawyers must maintain good relations with judges, so don’t expect them to complain if they see a judge not keeping up with his or her docket, or just not working at all, or serially letting violent felons go free.  

In a circuit like Fulton County, some of these judges also practice far too much leniency with criminals, worrying exclusively about their needs, ignoring victims of crime.  It’s a predictable outcome of the culture of insularity and politics that exists in the judicial appointment process.  Victim advocates — and community members seeking accountability — are treated like peasants who must beg favors at the door.  Information is contained with Kremlin-like security.  

Atlanta has outgrown this system.  

It’s time for the Fulton County Courts to open their doors to citizen scrutiny in a meaningful way.  Of course, it would have been useful for some of the many law professors and criminologists in the city to take a lead on this, but in my experience, academicians are interested in only one question regarding the criminal justice system: how do we get prisoners out of jail?

So I wouldn’t count on the professorate to do the footwork needed to find out exactly how broken the courts are in Fulton County.  But citizens can do the job, first by opposing this mass release of dangerous prisoners, then by seeing what is really going on in the courts.

*** 

Call your county commissioner and the two “at-large” commissioners and demand a citizen review panel.  By non-lawyers, for obvious reasons.  And while you’re on the phone, tell your commissioner that you oppose the pre-trial release plan that’s been sprung on the public, fait accompli.  Think of all the people who have been killed recently in Atlanta by people who should have been behind bars at the time: Harish Roy.  Eugenia Calle.  Who else?  John Henderson?  Octavia Atkins?  Brutus Jones?  Chastity Jones?  The AJC cannot report on every murder, so surely there are more.  Here are the contact numbers for the Fulton County Commissioners:

At-Large Commissioners:

John H. Eaves, Ph.D. District 1 (At Large) Chairman Email John Eaves 404-730-8206 Chairman Eaves’ extended website 

Robb Pitts District 2 (At Large) Email Robb Pitts 404-612-8210

District Commissioners:

Lynne Riley  District 3 Email Lynne Riley 404-730-8213

Tom Lowe  District 4 Email Tom Lowe 404-612-8218

Emma I. Darnell  District 5 THE MIGHTY FIVE [sic] E-mail Emma  404-612-8222

Nancy A. Boxill  District 6 Email Nancy Boxill  404-612-8226

William “Bill” Edwards  District 7  Commission Vice Chairman Email William Edwards  404-612-8230

Don’t Know Your District?  Check the Commissioners’ websites. 

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?

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.

Dumbing Down Justice: The New York Times Reports One Side of the Anti-Incarceration Controversy, Again

Under the guise of news, the nation’s “Paper of Record,” The New York Times, is reporting on controversial efforts to release more offenders early or to not imprison them at all — as if there is no controversy and everybody simply agrees that letting recidivists loose early will save money, not cost money and endanger the public.

In an article titled, “To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies,” the Times uncritically quotes both the Pew Center for the States and the Center for Effective Public Policy — and nobody else.  But these organizations fail to count in their analyses the added costs of crimes committed by offenders who would otherwise be incarcerated at the time they re-offend.

The Times article also endorses the view that prison doesn’t work because parolees continue to commit crimes after they have been released from prison.  It takes a moment to wrap one’s head around this:

The most pervasive cost-saving trend among corrections departments has been to look closely at parole systems, in which it is no longer cost-effective to monitor released inmates, largely because too many violate their terms, often on technicalities, and end up back in prison.

Too many parolees are violating parole, so monitoring parolees is no longer cost-effective.  That’s great. I’m also suspicious when a reporter claims, without attribution, that the parole rules being violated are “often” just “technicalities.”  Says who?  How “often”?  What’s a technicality?  Apparently, anything that doesn’t involve actually being caught in the act of committing another crime.  So, apparently, the act of keeping track of an offender who is likely to offend again is merely a technicality, according to the Times.  But isn’t keeping track of offenders the point of parole?

And then there’s this:

Like other states making such changes, California is led by a governor who long opposed such shifts in prison policies. But Mr. Schwarzenegger, as well as other leaders and lawmakers who are far more conservative, has come around to a view held by advocates of sentencing and prison reform that longer sentences do little to reduce recidivism among certain nonviolent criminals.

Again, the theme: “recidivists re-offend, so why imprison them in the first place?”  Here are some reasons: to prevent them from offending for the six months, or year, or five years during which they cannot re-offend because they are in prison.  Or, to build a record against chronic criminals who might get arrested for a parole violation this week but will be wanted for pimping and rape, or car jacking and burglary next week, so that they gradually go away for longer times.

What is most striking about the Times piece is the utter absence of any recognition that there are profound social costs when the threat of deterrence is shaved down to a nub. There are profound social costs when we say to certain groups of people: the problems we cause by placing repeat offenders back into your community are not our concern.  We’re not going to imprison them the next time they steal your lawnmower or break into your house.  We’re not going to prosecute them when they run through your backyard, fleeing a gun-toting drug dealer they just ripped off a block away.

This is the opposite of the broken-windows theory (close attention to even minor-seeming crimes reduces both crime and the fear of crime).  It will doubtlessly have the opposite effect, as well, even if the Times refuse to report it.