Keeping it real about probation and parole
A few weeks back, I wrote a column in which I suggested that our newly emergent crime control strategy would probably fail. Because of tight budgets at state and local levels, cities are reducing the size of their police forces while the state is planning to release more offenders onto the street. Fewer cops + more criminals didn’t strike me as a formula for success.
“No man’s freedom is secure while the state legislature is in session.”
I recently had a chance to discuss the piece with a serving member of the Missouri House of Representatives. Over beers, she advised that in the course of usual legislative deliberations — like determining when to best celebrate Cucumber Awareness Week — a general consensus has been reached in the House that we are paying to incarcerate too many people.
“There are,” she told me, “a lot of prisoners being needlessly confined.” For that reason, my Neanderthal approach to criminal justice was “unrealistic” in light of today’s economy. Though she couldn’t cite one actual case of a prisoner being held unjustly, she was confident there were plenty of them.
I took umbrage at her remarks. After all, being called “unrealistic” by a member of the state legislature is bit like having the town drunk question your drinking habits. Because the rep couldn’t name cases, I sought to do the reverse — locate individuals who should have been in the slam but were instead out harming others. That search didn’t take long.
At 1:50 a.m. on April 27, a 23-year-old pedestrian named April Wood prepared to cross the 700 block of South Broadway. As she stepped onto the street, she appeared to be an attractive young woman with here whole life I front of her. In fact, she was the oldest person in St. Louis because she had just seconds to live.
A hit and run driver took Ms. Wood’s life before disappearing into the night. Days later, investigators arrested Eric F. Peterson, 29. He had tried to scrap the wanted vehicle at a junk yard in Illinois. Nobody can prove that Peterson was driving the car on the night of the killing, so the circuit attorney couldn’t issue manslaughter charges. He’s presently charged with obstruction of justice in Madison County.
Here’s how the Post-Dispatch — a paper whose editorial board strongly advocates on behalf of liberalized prisoner release — recounts the suspect’s prior record:
Peterson’s criminal history includes convictions for theft, burglary, robbery, assault, driving with drug intoxication, and property damage. Court records say he served 120 days of “shock time” in prison for the assault charge and 30 days in St. Louis County Jail for the property damage conviction.
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s six convictions for a total of 150 days served — or an average of 25 days per crime.
Then there’s the case of Brian Lamon Cannon Jr. This 20-year-old is in custody charged with shooting and paralyzing Florissant police officer Michael Vernon during the course of a burglary investigation late last month. Here’s the Post’s description of his rap sheet:
According to Missouri court records, Cannon pleaded guilty in 2010 to burglaries and theft in Ladue and Clayton. In both cases, a St. Louis County judge sentenced Cannon to seven years in prison, but he received a suspended execution of sentence and was given five years’ probation and 120-day “shock time” in jail.
Here’s hoping that Officer Vernon wins early release from his prognosis for lifetime paralysis from the waist down.
Of course, a scholarly analyst would deem these cases to be anecdotal evidence because neither suspect is necessarily representative of offenders as a class. To get a better feeling for what’s going on, I refer the reader to the Law & Order section of the June 12 Post-Dispatch. Here are the headlines that were offered for your perusal that morning:
- Bank is robbed
- Teen is shot downtown
- Driver held after 3 pedestrians hit
- Girl, 14, is shot in head
- Man is stabbed in encounter set up online
- Woman is charged in crash that injured three
- Fort Zumwalt teacher faces child porn charges
The bad news is that these stories are not at all atypical and that crime will never be eradicated. The good news is that a relatively small percentage of the population does most of the damage. Even with today’s “alarming” incarceration rate (~2 million, nationally), well less than 1 percent of the population is confined. And that relatively moderate incapacitation has corresponded with a dramatic decline in the overall crime rate.
Some years back, a study was conducted to determine the long-term success of parole. Researchers found that within eight years of release, 71 percent of parolees reoffended — and those were only the ones who got caught. Economist Steven Levitt calculates that the incarceration of 1 additional prisoner coincides with a reduction of 15 fewer Part I crimes each year.
Confronted with numbers like these, it’s difficult not to conclude that prison is a bargain. I’m not sure how our legislators will find the funding to pay for extended incarceration, but don’t even think about cancelling Cucumber Awareness Week because when it comes to dealing with felons, they seem to be in something of a pickle…