I am traveling to Atlanta this week, so I will stick to a subject that comes painfully easy: recidivism.
Research confirms what common sense has been telling us all along: fewer than 10% of offenders commit 70% of all crimes. Some career criminals admit to hundreds, even thousands of felonies. This should not surprise us: does anybody really believe that people go out and rob one convenience store, or break into one house, then spend the rest of their time mowing their lawns and working nine-to-five?
The fact that there are super-predators out there doesn’t mean that the garden-variety burglar can’t be pretty prolific, too. Many criminologists make it their business to deny both types of recidivism (the big kind and the little kind). They do this in order to promote a philosophy of crime control that can be summarized this way: “prisons cause crime, not criminals, so if you don’t put people in prison, they won’t become recidivists.” Which is true, at least on paper, for if you don’t put people in prison when they break into one house, they won’t be counted as recidivists when they break into the next house.
Even a passing glance at academic studies comparing recidivism rates reveal substantial flaws: usually, ex-inmates are tracked for very brief time periods after incarceration, and only certain types of incarceration are counted as repeat offenses. With the prevalence of plea bargaining, the vast majority of crimes simply get shelved, never to appear on anyone’s record. And with the sealing of juvenile records, crimes committed during some of the most prolific years for criminal behavior are intentionally excluded from recidivism statistics. Academic claims about recidivism are almost universally meaningless. (Here is an interesting article on the subject as it plays out in Canada.)
In Atlanta this week, a particularly horrifying case of violent recidivism is making its slow way to a courtroom. In 2006, Jennifer Ewing was raped and murdered while exercising on the Silver Comet Trail. Michael Ledford, on probation for a previous rape, is charged with the crime: the evidence against him is indisputable.
Defense attorneys don’t like the term “indisputable” unless they can work it to their advantage, which they do by claiming that the mere existence of indisputable evidence means that their client cannot get a fair trial — because “fair” has come to mean “endless tugs at the get-out-of-jail-free card.” Thus expect a grotesquely expensive jury selection process, then grotesquely expensive hearings disputing Michael Ledford’s mental incompetency, and, throughout, demands for a mistrial because the public happened to find out that Ledford was caught for Ewing’s murder covered in blood, and he has done this before.
How many women has Michael Ledford really raped? Convicted of rape in Georgia in 1991, he received a heavy sentence for a rape at that time and also served more of that sentence than you usually see, ten full years in prison and ten more on probation. Ten years behind bars is not unusual today, but few rapists spent that much time in prison prior to the sentencing reform of the mid-1990’s. So what was the reason for throwing the book at him back then?
I suspect he was a prolific rapist, and police knew it, even though he was only charged with the one crime. Ledford was 29 when he was sent up for rape; rapists usually start committing sex crimes in their teens. What was he doing between the ages of 19 and 29? Who knew about it? The victim in the 1991 assault told the court that Ledford would doubtlessly rape again.
She was right. Another question: what was Ledford doing between his release in 2001 and his arrest for Jennifer Ewing’s murder in 2006? Mowing his lawn? Working nine-to-five?
The public is being asked to absorb the sure-to-be-excessive legal bill as Ledford’s lawyers attempt to use the strength of the evidence against him to get him off. The public is also being asked to accept arguments that recidivists belong in the community, not behind bars. They should not accede to either without receiving full disclosure about many things, including the real criminal histories of people like Michael Ledford: juvenile records, plea bargains, shelved cases, and all.