The sorry life story of suspected killer Steven J. Hayes reported by Alison Cowan and Christine Stuart in today's NYTimes is an excellent example of why so many Americans support mass incarceration. The suspected slayer of a Connecticut mother and her two daughters had a twenty year history of small property and drug crimes, with numerous incarcerations, paroles, and revocations. The chance that such a petty criminal will turn murderous is what motivates many Americans to support laws like California's 3 Strikes law (although even it requires at least one serious crime before you get an extended sentences for a petty one).
In an oped in the LA Times a couple of days ago I called on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to release thousands of parolees whose records look a lot like that of Steven J. Hayes. The fear that one of them will do what Hayes did paralyzes most politicians ("Remember Willie Horton" has replaced "Remember the Alamo" among our current crop).
I wish I had a really satisfying answer to the Steven J. Haye's of our society. I'd like to believe we could develop effective methods of rehabilitating people like Hayes, but I haven't seen the evidence to support that. In the end, I think we need to view them as risks that we tolerate because the cost of locking up every Steven J. Hayes who might someday turn murderous is just too high and too destructive of our open society.
Because murders are deliberate, it is very hard to think about the analogy to accidents, but I think it applies. Petty criminals like Hayes who suddenly turn murderous are like bad drivers who, after wracking up numerous violations, one day finally run into a minivan full of kids and cause a tragedy. We should try to suspend licenses and compel bad drivers to become more careful, but in the end we cannot altogether prevent such tragedies. Of course the analogy breaks down because suspending licenses is actually a far less destructive measure than locking people up because it leaves them other ways to get around and function (and because it doesn't really guarantee they won't drive).
Maybe someday we will have a technological fix to both problems. In the meantime we shudder and accept that life has risks.