Saturday, August 4, 2007

Locking Out Violence: Petty Offenders and Mass Incarceration

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.


JSN said...

The Bureau of Justice Statistics did a study of "nonviolent" prisoners released from state prison that had been selected on the basis of the sentenced offense (property, public order & drug crimes). they found that; 95% had a prior criminal history, 8% had used a weapon, 30% had prior arrests for violent crime and 20% had prior convictions for violent crimes. After three years about a third had returned to prison and a substantial fraction had been rearrested.

One problem with that selection is the sentenced crime may differ significantly from the original charge (examples robbery becomes assault, burglary becomes theft and trafficking becomes possession). A person placed on probation for a nonviolent crime can be in prison because of a probation violation. That is much more likely to be the case if the violation is an assault.

I think this is very strong evidence that we need a better definition of nonviolent offender.

Another problem is a burglary and arson can be a crimes against persons not a nonviolent crimes against property. That is also true for DUI involving death or injury. In my state the burglaries committed by Steven J. Hayes would be classified as crimes against persons not nonviolent property crimes.

Risk assessment is used by our Board of Parole and in general it is a reliable tool but on rare occasions there is a "nasty surprise" because the risk assessment instruments are not perfect. There is a set of inmates the BOP will not parole but they are released unsupervised upon expiration of sentence. I think releasing violent criminals unsupervised is an unintended consequence of being tough on crime. They should be paroled and place under rigorous supervision.

Michael Zhou said...

Have you seen this Boston Review article?