Anti-crime also anti-justice

May 20, 2012


So the people got sick of it, all those criminals being coddled by all those bleeding heart liberal judges with all their soft-headed concern for rights and rehabilitation. And a wave swept this country in the Reagan years, a wave ridden by pundits and politicians seeking power, a wave that said, no mercy, no more. From now on, judges would be severely limited in the sentences they could hand down for certain crimes, required to impose certain punishments whether or not they thought those punishments fit the circumstances at hand. From now on, there was a new mantra in American justice. From now on, we would be “tough on crime.”

We got tough on Jerry DeWayne Williams, a small-time criminal who stole a slice of pizza from a group of children. He got 25 years.

We got tough on Duane Silva, a guy with an IQ of 71 who stole a VCR and a coin collection. He got 30 to life.

We got tough on Dixie Shanahan, who shot and killed the husband who had beaten her for three days straight, punching her in the face, pounding her in the stomach, dragging her by the hair, because she refused to have an abortion. She got 50 years.

We got tough on Jeff Berryhill, who got drunk one night, kicked in an apartment door and punched a guy who was inside with Berryhill’s girlfriend. He got 25 years.

Now, we have gotten tough on Marissa Alexander. She is the Jacksonville, Fla., woman who said her husband flew into a violent rage and tried to strangle her when he found text messages to her first husband on her phone. She said she fled to her car, but in her haste, forgot her keys. She took a pistol from the garage and returned to the house for them. When her husband came after her again, she fired — into the ceiling. The warning shot made him back off. No one was hurt.

Like Shanahan before her, Alexander was offered a plea bargain. Like Shanahan, she declined, reasoning that no one would convict her under the circumstances. Like Shanahan, she was wrong.

Earlier this month, Alexander got 20 years for aggravated assault. And like Shanahan, like Berryhill, Williams, Silva and Lord only knows how many others, she received that outlandish sentence not because the judge had a heart like Simon LeGree’s, but because he was constrained by so-called “mandatory-minimum” sentencing guidelines that tie judges’ hands, allow them no leeway for consideration, compassion, context or common sense. In other words, they prohibit judges from judging.

Charles Smith, the judge who sent Shanahan away, put it best. He said the sentence he was required to impose “may be legal, but it is wrong.” Amen.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” In a nation where we execute people based on no evidence save eyewitness testimony, it is hard to imagine what meaning that prohibition still holds. But assuming it means anything, surely it means you can’t draw a 20-year sentence for shooting a ceiling.

Except that Alexander just did.

In restricting judges from judging, we have instituted a one-size-fits-all version of justice that bears little resemblance to the real thing. It proceeds from the same misguided thinking that produced the absurd “zero tolerance” school drug policies that routinely get children suspended for bringing aspirin and Midol to class. In both cases, there is this silly idea that by requiring robotic adherence to inflexible rules we will produce desirable results.

By now, it should be obvious how wrongheaded and costly that reasoning was — and how urgently we need to roll back the wave that swept over us in the Reagan years. It is understandable that the nation wanted to get tough on crime.

But we have been rather hard on justice, too.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wedneday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Flap Doodle 2 years, 10 months ago

Jerry Williams wound up serving a bit more than 5 years of his sentence. Regarding his background: " ..In 1985, he was arrested twice on suspicion of car theft and was convicted of receiving stolen property. Over the next several years, Williams racked up convictions for drug possession, vehicle theft and robbery, serving time in jail and on probation...." http://articles.latimes.com/2010/feb/10/local/la-me-pizzathief10-2010feb10 Jerry's concerned now that his chosen life of crime has gotten him tagged as a habitual offender. Boo freaking hoo.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

So the "tough on crime" philosophy isn't working well, according to Mr. Pitts. Yet he admits that the people got sick of the "soft on crime" philosophy that preceded it. And one must wonder if Mr. Pitts really favors allowing judges to judge, given the likelihood that one judge might impose a severe sentence while another might impose a lesser sentence for similar crimes. And that would likely be exacerbated if things like race and class were involved. I'm guessing that Mr. Pitts cannot find a system he would find universally acceptable. Rather than rage against a complex system that will never be perfect, maybe Mr. Pitts should go to that career criminal who stole a slice of pizza from some kids, look him in the eye, and say to him, "what were you thinking, fool".

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

Me; I was thinking that if I wanted a slice of pizza, I should get a job, earn enough money and buy my own slice of pizza rather than stealing one from some kids. Me; I was thinking that if I wanted a VCR and a coin collection, I should get a job, earn enough money and buy my own VCR and coin collection, rather than steal those items from people who did work and bought those items. (I was also thinking it somewhat of a red herring to imply someone is not bright because he has an I.Q. of 71, yet appears bright enough to go after the coin collection. That in itself shows a level of understanding of things like potential value, abstract thought, etc.) Me; I was thinking that even though I've never been to prison, I suspect it is a place I would not like. And because of that, I choose not to behave in such ways where my next address will be in a prison. But, hey, that's just me.

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

If you thought you could get away with it, would you just steal stuff instead of working for it?

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

I wouldn't. That said, I think there are many who would. And I will take it a step or two further. I think there are many who think it's fine to steal even if going to prison were likely, because going to prison is not as bad for them as it would be for me. Also, because the criminal justice system has so much uncertainty built into it, with the risk of punishment being so variable, that the uncertainty itself encourages those people to behave in certain ways. As an example, if a person gets probation after being convicted of a crime, there is little reason for that person to not commit the crime again. And if they do commit the crime again, and again get probation, that feeling of immunity has been reinforced. We're encouraging career criminals. Indeterminate sentences likewise fuel the feeling of uncertainty. If a person is sentenced to 5-10 years and is released on probation after just 3 years, that coming on the heels of a plea bargain where the person should have been facing 20-25 years, well, that doesn't have the deterrent factor that such serious crimes should have. Now what Mr. Pitts is arguing against, this tough on crime attitude is a direct reaction to the soft on crime attitudes that proceeded this and what I was describing. We still see it today. Did you read the article about the guy arrested for DUI after having 14 convictions? No telling how many times he got away with it. But the same day was the story of the guy, 25 years old law student who killed someone. He's facing significant time, but for some reason the 14 time DUI guy never has. It's that type of inconsistency that breeds that behavior. If everyone knew that with one conviction they would face one year of prison, and I mean prison so unpleasant that everyone would agree that it was unpleasant, then I think DUIs would decrease. Of course, that just what Mr. Pitts is arguing against, standardized sentencing.

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

Then it's not your fear of prison that stops you.

Studies have shown that certainty of conviction is more of a deterrent than the harshness of sentences.

But I don't see a way to make that more certain, without greatly increasing the power of the state and cutting into constitutional protections and due process.

Standardized sentencing has pro's and con's, just like non-standardized sentencing. Generally speaking, it sort of makes sense to me that judges should be able to take a variety of mitigating factors into account, though.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

Let's be perfectly honest about a couple of things. I'll give a giant BS to Mr. Pitts and his suggestion that he wants judges judging. The first time a black guy get 10 years for some crime and some white guy gets 1 year for the same crime, he's going to be shouting from the rooftops about the unfairness of the sentences and he will be calling for sentencing guidelines. Also, and this is a truly sad state of affairs, but there are large communities within America where coming out of prison is worn like a badge of honor. Or a rite of passage. Prison, the stigma, the harshness of the punishment, is gone. And those communities are inner city, poverty, overwhelmingly minority. So whatever deterrent once was associated with prison has been lost.
For me, I still have a fear of prison. I'll likely not be welcomed into any of the prison gangs that provide protection to many inmates. And within my community outside prison, there is certainly a significant stigma involved. So fearing for my safety, and my communities attitudes does indeed provide a necessary deterrent factor, for me. That deterrent is not universal in communities throughout the country.

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

If it were simply your fear of prison that stopped you from committing crimes, then you'd commit them if you thought you could get away with it.

But, you said you wouldn't.

So, it's clear that it's not your fear of prison that stops you.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

For me, my fear of prison includes the stigma involved. Remove that stigma, and my fear lessens.
For me, my fear of prison includes my personal safety. Remove that fear and my fear of prison would be reduced. That said, I have a value system solidly intact that prevents me from committing crimes likely to get me put in prison. What I am saying is that if the stigma is eliminated and it has in some communities and remove the fear for one's personal safety, as it has in some communities, then even if someone is brought up with the right values, those values are more easily overcome. And I still call BS on Mr. Pitts.

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

That's my point - it's your values that prevent you from committing crimes, not the fear of being caught and incarcerated.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

It's more complicated than that. My sense of right and wrong are more deeply entrenched now than they were say 4 decades ago. I suspect that's a matter of maturity, a lost sense of immortality. What I might have considered and rejected as a youth is something I would not even consider now. My point is that with others, whether they lack maturity, whether they still have their sense of immortality frequent in youth, whether they live in communities where stigma and fear are much less, whether they simply don't share my values, some or all of these things are in play. If fear and stigma have been reduced, I would say we as a society need to increase these.

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

I'm sure it's more complicated than that, both for you and for others.

If we really want to reduce crime, we need to look more deeply into the causes of it, social, economic, psychological, etc.

I'm not that sure that increasing fear is the best way to do that, because I think that there are other and better ways to motivate people.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

I think fear should be a part of it. I think stigma should be a part of it. I think there are many things that could be done, but I think there are things we as a society can control and things that we as a society have no control over. And because we don't control some aspects of the equation doesn't mean we should abstain from exerting influence over those things we can control. I've mentioned many times my commitment to increased funding for education. Yet, statistically, children born into single head of households face far greater risks of drugs, alcohol and incarceration. That is something we have much less, if any control over. But because we can't control single parenthood doesn't mean we remove the stigma of prison. We control what we can.

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

I know about your desire for control, and your fear based philosophy, having discussed things with you in the past.

I have a different view.

If single parent households create a greater risk of those things, then we should help single parents, in order to decrease that risk.

You can't control how communities other than your own (or even your own that much) view things like prison anyway.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

"If single parent households create a greater risk of those things, then we should help single parents, in order to decrease that risk"

Help them how? Giving one single head of household money might well encourage two more types of that behavior. And that help is going to have to come from somewhere. More government programs that take from someone who does things the correct way and give to others who make unwise decisions. Is that really how we define "help"?

BTW - I would be less inclined to characterize my feelings as a desire for control. Rather, I would say that I believe we should have a clear set of rules, our set of laws. Then, as long as people play by those rules, as long as they obey they law, then they should reap the rewards of their actions, both good and bad. I have no problem with a person investing in the market and making millions. And I have no problem with a person losing millions either. As long as they broke no laws, it's none of my business either way. The same is true for many other areas of life. If someone chooses to have 10 children by 10 different partners, poverty will be a likely consequence. If you demand that their poverty be made my business, then you open yourself up to me making a moral judgement on that lifestyle. Either make it my business or not. But you can't reach into my wallet and tell me that the poverty in my business, but the lifestyle is not. That's a philosophy I disagree with.

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

Help them in a way that helps the children, and preferably in a way that doesn't incentivize the behavior and thus increase it.

You can believe as you like about your views - it's clear to me that you like control, in a variety of ways and discussions, from this one to the Middle East, etc.

We can pay to help them, or we can pay for the consequences of not helping them - there's no free lunch. I'd prefer to help than punish after the fact, especially since it's not the children's fault.

You can make whatever judgments you like - I'm not stopping you.

But, whether we help them or just wait and punish them later, it becomes our business - it costs plenty of money to catch, try, and incarcerate people.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

We can pay to help now or later, that's your stand. Unfortunately, we're currently doing both. Since you bring up my control issues, which I'm not at all clear what you mean by that in the middle east, let me bring up your opposition to the war on drugs. You've stated it's been a huge failure. Surely the war on poverty has been an equal failure. And while I suggest that if drugs were legalized, we'd be trading one set of problems for another, I also think that if we gave up on the war on poverty, we'd be trading one set of problems for another. But that's precisely because we've lost both. Why do you advocate a radical new approach with one and a continuation of the failed policies when it comes to the other?

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

Yes, that's the reality - there's no free lunch.

If we have a lot of poor, uneducated people, that's almost certainly guaranteed to result in more crime.

I don't know whether the war on poverty has been an "equal failure" - there seems to be disagreement on that score.

And, I don't advocate a simple continuation of those policies - I advocate for an improvement on them in a variety of ways, by changing the ways in which the system is structured, so as to actually help people rather than just enable them.

For example, I would support a variety of required classes and programs for people on government assistance, like health, budgeting, parenting, etc.

And, I'd like to see us adjust our financial assistance so that it makes more sense for somebody to work, even at a part time job, than not to work.


But, if there aren't enough jobs for those people to get, it won't matter how we structure those programs, so we also have to consider that problem.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

Why waste all this time educating the poor and then incarcerating them later when they commit crimes. Why not just give each poor person a million dollars and then they won't be poor anymore. Of course, I'm being facetious. My suggestion removes all individual responsibility from the equation. That's the difference in our approaches. I took your argument to an absurdum. But it is your argument.
I recall working in California during the hey day of the dot com boom. There was a joke going around that if you threw a brick through the window of a business, they would come out and offer you a job. Everyone who was unemployed at that time was unemployed because that's what they chose. And 5% did make that choice. I don't care how many classes about health, budgeting or parenting you require, there will always be some people who won't work, won't budget, won't parent properly and will commit crime. I might agree with you if you recommend they pick up trash on the side of the road in exchange for public assistance.
Bottom line, I'd put more of the responsibility for an individual's behavior on that individual and less on society that may or may not have created them.

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

Except that it's not my argument at all.

And, I never said that my suggestions would eliminate crime - I think they'll reduce it quite a bit, but not eliminate it.

Bottom line, I'm not as interested in judgement and punishment as you are - I'd prefer to prevent crime, and try to help people make better choices.

You know, I wonder what you think it accomplishes to judge people in this way - let's say we agree that those poor people are just lazy, irresponsible, and stupid. How does that change anything?

And, I prefer ideas like education, job training, etc. over forced labor camps, of course.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

I'd use an analogy of a continuum. Individual responsibility at one end, responsibility of society, circumstance at the other. While neither of us is at the furthest extreme possible, you certainly lean towards the latter while I'm leaning towards the former. Is that a correct characterization. But I'd get back to the point you made earlier, that you'd rather pay now, for education, training, poverty reduction rather than pay later for incarceration. I would agree if it were one or the other. But we've paying a very high price now for both. The either/or you would like to have certainly isn't what we have now. Nor is it what we've had for a couple of generations now. I'm not convinced that increased spending for one will help reduce spending in the other. See my little joke about the happenings in Ca. during the dot com era. Let me give an impression of your posts, Jafs. Maybe you'd care to respond. I read your writings and I'm reminded of Anne Frank, her quote about believing in the inherent good of people, despite all that went on. But I wonder if she ever changed her mind. She wrote that while hidden in the closet apartment where she and her family were hiding. She heard what was going on around her, she and her family listened to the radio. But her voice dies after being taken from that sanctuary. But she lived for several months, or was it a year, (it's been a long time since I read it). Rather than hearing, she would have seen. Hearing on the radio provides a certain distance, being removed. In the concentration camp, though, she would have seen the death every day. She would eventually see the death of her sister, mother. And she would breathe her last breath as well. Did she change her mind? We'll never know.
As I read your posts, I hear her. Her voice of youthful optimism. But I also hear naivete. I also wonder if you ever chose to work in the field of social services, and not with the developmentally disabled, who deserve nothing less than universal support, but rather with a darker underbelly of people. People who choose not to work simply because they don't want to. If you saw people who committed crimes simply because they can. People who could go to jail or not, it made little difference to them, I wonder if your level of cynicism would go up as your level of naivete went down. Just wondering. Peace.

jafs 2 years, 10 months ago

No - again, and I don't know how many times I have to say it - I'm not looking for the right person to "blame", the way that you are.

I'm looking for solutions, and ways that will improve things.

Even if we're paying for both now, I'm pretty convinced that they're connected, and that reductions in social services result in greater spending on the criminal justice system.

Thank you for the compliments - I take being compared with Anne Frank to be a great compliment. And, also for the "youthful" part, since I'm 50 years old - I'll be 51 in September.

What's your point? I'm quite aware that human beings have the capacity for evil as well as good, and have been for a long time.

Should we just kill all of them? Or put them all in jail for the rest of their lives? What earthly good do your judgements do anybody, including yourself? We can sit in judgement all we like, and it accomplishes nothing at all - we haven't reduced crime, or poverty, or improved anybody's lives, right?

So, why hold on to it?

kawrivercrow 2 years, 10 months ago

Thanks for the link. To summarize: Matthew Lee Johnson, age 36, was robbing a gas station and as an aside, decided to set a 76 yr old woman on fire, giving her 3rd degree burns over 40% of her body. Injuries like these are nearly ALWAYS fatal in the elderly, but not before indescribable suffering is endured. From a comment board post under the linked article "Public records show that Matthew Lee Johnson is a (violent) convicted felon with a rap sheet a mile long, going back 18 YEARS. "

Where is Mr Pitt's outcry for the victim? Perhaps she wasn't the right race.

Likewise, the oh-so-very-sympathetic Mr Pitts once decried the harsh sentencing given to a group of blacks who kidnapped, gang-raped, tortured and ultimately killed a white man and woman...yes, they raped the man as well, in front of the woman and vice versa. They then used drain cleaner to try and erase the DNA evidence from the victims' orifices...while the victims were still alive.

cato_the_elder 2 years, 10 months ago

It's "Simon Legree," not "Simon LeGree."

Looks like the self-proclaimed expert on the history of race relations in America has never read "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

mom_of_three 2 years, 10 months ago

Because he capitalized the G, and his editor didn't catch it. PUHLEASE. Thats all you have to complain about.

Satirical 2 years, 10 months ago

Anti-Pitts also anti-ignorance

Hard cases make bad law. Rather than changing all sentencing restrictions as Pitts suggests, how about just changing the ones which don't make sense. I would rather see mandatory minimums than forum shopping for biased judges.

50YearResident 2 years, 10 months ago

The Juvinile Justice System is where small time petty thieves learn they can "get away" with crimes all the way up to murder and be free from a permanent record. The system needs to be changed back to the time I was a kid. That is when if you did the crime you did the time. Make juvinile records a permanent part of teen's records with no free pass for age and see how crime can be brought under control again. No Free Pass for Teens.

verity 2 years, 10 months ago

This is undoubtably a serious problem---mandatory terms and sentencing discretion have both led to injustice. Maybe there could be some compromise that would work better than either of these ways?

However, I think that a big step in the right direction would be to de-privatize jails. That would take away some of the incentive to have such a large percentage of our population in jail.

We also seem to have moved away from efforts at rehabilitation. Before anybody starts yelling, I realize that rehabilitation doesn't work with everybody, but when we send people back out into society with no way to support themselves or even how to make good decisions, we are just asking for recidivism. It is better for all of us to spend some money on rehabilitation than to have a revolving door.

Crazy_Larry 2 years, 10 months ago

The hoodlums of today do not fear going to prison. Prison should be feared and not seen as a place for free room and board... I have an idea on how we can bring consequences back into our prison system. The prisons will have no cable television, no climate control, and no windows. Seeing the sun will be a privilege that a prisoner must earn. The prison will operate on a merit system. If a prisoner does what they're supposed to do and stays out of trouble they will advance upwards (literally) in the prison structure. If a prisoner continues to act up and cause trouble they will move downwards until they're in the basement of the prison. Now, in order to keep the prison from becoming overcrowded, we'll completely flood the basement every once in a while in the middle of the night and without warning. I think we'd have less crime if the prisons were operated like this. Now, straighten up and 'ack' right you sons of mothers.

Crazy_Larry 2 years, 10 months ago

Most definitely. The Chain Gang will be a privileged position to attain in my merit-based system of punishment--lots of sunshine.

verity 2 years, 10 months ago

Yes, that has worked so well throughout history.

gudpoynt 2 years, 10 months ago

Another Pitt's article.

Queue slanderous Pavlovian drool.

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