June 24, 2008
"Three-crimes-a-day thief calls for tougher sentencing"
The headline of this post is the headline of this article from Canada's Globe and Mail. Here's part of the story:
For about four years, police have been routinely interviewing incarcerated chronic offenders in an attempt to figure out what makes them tick, and also to warn them that investigators are monitoring them....
Deputy Chief Le Pard said that police are "not alone" in seeking longer sentences for chronic offenders. "Our support came from the last place we would expect," he said.
That was an anonymous offender who turned himself in on a breaking-and-entering charge and, over the past weekend, had a few choice words about the justice system that he delivered to a member of the chronic-offenders unit, who recorded the conversation on video....
The 32-year-old lifelong criminal, who claimed to commit three break-ins a day in Vancouver before being voluntarily incarcerated, called the B.C. court system "a joke." "They are too lenient. They're too light. That's just how I think, that's how I feel. The crimes that I've committed, I should have gotten a lot more time," he said. "I'm sure if I wanted to I could go to court and get bail," he said. "They'd say, 'He 'fessed up to it,' you know, 'Just let him out.' I guarantee they'd let me out."
All of this was another bid by police to hammer home the view, first outlined by Chief Constable Jim Chu last week, that action is needed to deal with the city's worst chronic offenders, who tend to be lightly sentenced for property crimes fuelled by drug addiction even when they have up to 30 convictions.
June 24, 2008 at 08:07 AM | Permalink
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Three-crimes-a-day thief calls for tougher sentencing":
This guy appears to have internalized the erroneous notion that the purpose of bail is punishment, that somehow the idea he's eligible for bail means the system is too lenient. Bail availability is (supposed to be) about the likelihood the D will show up for trial. That this fellow doesn't understand the purpose of bail argues either for nor against a tuff approach.
Sentences in such cases run up against a pragmatic wall. Poverty and drug addiction offer a near-bottomless well from which chronic offenders are drawn (not to mention a continuum of folks at risk of falling into a life of crime), but state lockup resources are limited and expensive to operate. Lock up a drug addict and give them no treatment or re-entry support, and there's a good chance they'll still be an addict and return to their old habits when they get out. Incarceration is not a long-term solution for drug-motivated petty property offenders. They don't learn the skills or attitude they need to get off that path while sitting in jail.
Instead, stronger community supervision with home visits, smaller supervision caseloads, etc. coupled with reentry support and progressive sanctions (including but not limited to incarceration stints) can combine carrots and sticks to motivate behavioral changes. Stronger probation, not more jails, is the best solution to chronic, drug-motivated property offenders. In fact, in a world of limited jail resources, it's more or less the only available one.
Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 24, 2008 8:32:14 AM
Whoops, should have said "That this fellow doesn't understand the purpose of bail argues NEITHER for nor against a tuff approach."
Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 24, 2008 8:33:49 AM
It would be interesting to know the definition of "chronic offender" they used to select subjects for interview. Are these people with multiple convictions at the felony level or are they primarily misdemeanant substance abusers (aka as frequent fliers).
I agree with Grits about the value of community based correction and alcohol/drug treatment but there is an exception. One of the common characteristics of frequent fliers is that they don't appear in court or to see their probation officer and if you try community supervision with them they will become frequent probation violators. If they refuse alcohol/drug treatment there is not much that can be done about it. If you lock them up for 30 days they will dry out but within a week of release they have returned to their former pattern of behavior.
In our jail the mean time between returns of frequent fliers is about 100 days. I have no data for other jails so don't know how this compares with an average jail but my guess it is high because we have a VA hospital in our city and many of them are vets.
Posted by: John Neff | Jun 24, 2008 9:15:30 AM
I think there is a more basic question at the bottom of this. Criminals begin to ask themselves whether the system is serious or not. When they find out over the course of several years that it's not -- that the revolving door keeps revolving no matter how many crimes they commit -- they (understandably, and correctly) conclude that society doesn't care all that much and at some level is simply willing to indulge them.
This is much of the problem I have with Grits and others in the anything-but-prison camp. Criminals know that prison means, "We're serious." They also know that "community based treatement" and "outreach programs" and "reentry support" mean, "We're not serious."
This is not to say that criminals should not learn job skills or be given a reasonable opportunity to ply them. It's to say that we are blinking reality if we think that merely having those skills is the key. It isn't. They key is a willingness, even a determination, to USE those skills even in some gritty and none-too-pleasant factory job, and that determination comes only from the understanding that living as a criminal is, not merely self-destructive, but immoral.
And yes, that's judgmentalism, big time. Living as a criminal is immoral.
By having so many jitters about incarceration, we send the message that we are equivocal about whether crime is actually wrong (this is why so many commenters here relentlessly pretend that the only inmates are the proverbial "low level non-violent pot smokers").
We are also sending the message that, even if crime actually IS wrong, it's not so much the fault of the criminal. It is, instead, OUR fault, because we're racists, militarists, colonialists, etc. (you can get the script by checking in with MoveOn.org, Mother Jones or Jeremiah Wright). This is best exemplified on this blog by DK, who has never seen a hoodlum, strongarm or thug, but only menatally ill and "destabalized" people who belt you over the head with a tire iron to get your wallet ONLY because they have been "marginalized" by government policies.
Sooner rather than later, the message of society's moral equivocation and self-condemnation gets through. One of the principal means of conveying it is the campaign against incarceration. This campaign is almost always waged as being "smart" on crime and fiscally prudent, but one needn't dig even an eighth of an inch below the surface to understand that what's really behind it is something similar to -- although in most cases not as extreme as -- DK's "it's society's fault" approach.
Thus, even if refusing to imprison criminals would not directly result in more crime -- which it will -- it will indirectly, though I suspect massively, result in more crime by legitimizing the idea that the problem here is not with the criminal's greed and thuggery, but society's "intolerance."
Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 24, 2008 10:27:37 AM
These are fair points, Bill, though they seem highly inconsistent with your advocacy last summer that Scooter Libby's prison term should be commuted.
Lying under oath, of which Libby was convicted by a jury, is immoral and harms our legal system a lot more than low-level pot dealing, especially when done by a prominent lawyer in a high-profile case. And yet you actively promoted, in your words, "moral equivocation" concernig lying under oath through a commutation of his prison term.
Care to explain why the commutation you advocated and Bush granted for convicted felon Lewis Libby did not "legitimiz[e] the idea that the problem here is not with the criminal's greed and thuggery"?
Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 24, 2008 10:56:59 AM
For me to focus on the Libby commutation would, I'm afraid, elevate a single case to where it would effectively blot out the points I'm trying to make with my post this morning. It would also elevate that single case to a prominence it does not deserve, because by any account the Libby prosecution was very unusual and thus can shed only a limited amount of light on the broader debate about the costs and benefits of imprisonment as punishment in a TYPICAL criminal case.
Nonetheless, I'll respond, mostly just because I'm a sucker for argument, as you know.
"These are fair points, Bill, though they seem highly inconsistent with your advocacy last summer that Scooter Libby's prison term should be commuted."
If the points are fair, then they're fair. This is true even if I'm the biggest hypocrite in world history. The debate is about ideas, not me.
"Lying under oath, of which Libby was convicted by a jury, is immoral and harms our legal system a lot more than low-level pot dealing..."
As I was saying in my post, the notion that the jails are filled with low-level pot dealers is baloney. I have a good idea of who got sent to jail (having been in the USAO for a long time), and for by far the most part it was NOT low-level pot dealers.
I agree with you that Libby's crime was serious and immoral. I have never said otherwise, publicly or privately. In a society like ours, with justified confidence in its law, serious and immoral felonies almost always deserve prison time, rather than the anything-but-prison stance that, for example, Grits takes (and I believe you sympathize with, while not taking it to that extent). But to say that they almost always deserve prison time is not to say that they ABSOLUTELY always deserve it. In very unusual cases thay might not, and Libby's was such a case in my view.
"And yet you actively promoted, in your words, 'moral equivocation' concernig lying under oath through a commutation of his prison term."
Again, to recommend a non-prison sentence in one very unusual case is scarcely to promote moral equivocation. Moral equivocation is promoted by the notion, often seen on this blog, that AS A ROUTINE MATTER, society is so blighted with racism, class-structured inequality and so forth that it lacks moral standing to use imprisonment as its primary sanction for felonious behavior. At no point did I argue for the commutation on the theory that Libby's prevarication was in any way soceity's fault, or the prosecutor's fault, or anyone's doing except Libby's. So it is not just the singularity of the case but the nature of my argument for leniency that shows I was not shilling for moral equivocation.
(My recommendation in the Libby case was also that he be left with his quarter million dollar fine. If anyone here thinks that is an unserious sanction, they're a lot richer than I am. Libby also lost his professional livelihood, which is a price most convicted felons don't pay).
"Care to explain why the commutation you advocated and Bush granted for convicted felon Lewis Libby did not 'legitimiz[e] the idea that the problem here is not with the criminal's greed and thuggery'?"
Because even his severest critics never claimed that LIbby acted out of greed or thuggery. Most crimes are undertaken to make a fast buck. That was never true of Libby's. The evidence seems to indicate that he lied to cover his backside, which (needlessly) he had left exposed in his efforts to support the Iraq war.
Now let me return to the charge of hypocrisy. There are two more things to say about it.
First, it could just as easily be turned around on the anything-but-prison side. Why are those who for years have said that the guidelines were too harsh, that judges were too reluctant to allow downward departures, and that soceity relies too much on prison now so incensed that, in one case at least, their advice was taken? That isn't hypocrisy? Ha!
Second, what is really going on with where one lines up on the Libby case has little to do with the debate about sentencing. It has much more to do with the war in Iraq. Everybody knows this, but no one seems willing to say it out loud. Those most in favor of Libby (and who criticized me for not recommending an outright pardon) are also those most in favor of the Iraq war and Bush in general. Those most against Libby are the people most against the Iraq war and Bush in general (and Cheney). Their otherwise liberal views about sentencing and the irrational harshness of the guidelines got tanked in a New York minute simply because of their resentment toward, and in some cases hatred of, Bush, Cheney and the war. Indeed, Libby's case was one of the most politicized I have ever seen, and I've lived in or near Washington for a long time.
The politicization itself might have been a grounds for arguing for leniency (although it is not one I employed, because that would have been a form of blaming society, which I oppose). But one way or the other, the highly unusual circumstances of the one case involving Libby can scarecly provide a ground for an attack on my argument questioning a one-size-fits-all antipathy towards incarceration as a broad policy position. And lastly, I would note that, in fact, you make no such attack, instead acknowledging that the points of my argument are "fair."
Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 24, 2008 1:42:59 PM
A good defense, Bill, assuming you are comfortable saying that your pro-prison attitude can/should be suspended anytime we find "highly unusual circumstances." If so, we might readily look at all post-Booker debates as simply a debate over who has highly unusual circumstances AND who gets to make that call. Notably, Judge Walton did not think Libby's case merited an exception from the pro-prison philosophy you tout, though Prez. Bush obviously concluded otherwise.
Moreover, given that Libby's crime was very similar to Victor Rita's (albeit in a lower-profile setting), I am not sure it is accurate to call Libby's crime/sentence "highly unusual" even though it was obviously highly politicized.
The broader point, which you seem to acknowledge, is that every principle has exceptions. You seem comfortable with a prison presumption unless you find a good reason not to imprison. Others, myself included, would flip the presumption: don't imprison unless there is a good reason to do so.
I like to think my anti-prison presumption resonates with the commitment of the Framers to human liberty and individual rights and limited government power. But I would guess you believe your approach is more in the tradition of our great nation. (Fortunately, we all recognize the value and importance of a healthy and respectful debate on these topics.)
Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 24, 2008 2:05:39 PM
Bill the problem with talking about criminals being immoral is that there are some things which are crimes which are not inheriently immoral (such as possession of a controlled substance or even sale of a controlled substance since using Adam Smith's invisible hand theory of the marketplace one could make a case that the crack dealer is simply responding to the market). Of course, there are also plenty of things which are immoral (or at least arguably immoral) but not illegal.
Of course, what is interesting is taking the drug example - as stated above, there is nothing inheriently immoral about a person taking drugs - there is also nothing inheriently immoral about selling drugs providing there is no fraud involved. What is the difference between Philip Morris or Miller and the corner crack dealer - history and monetary influence - otherwise, both conduct the same business - selling a harmful, addictive, possibly fatal product that the buyer is purchasing out of their free will.
Of course, one could also point out that there is very little difference between say a check cashing place and a loan shark - while a check cashing place is less likely to break one's leg for non-payment, you can't make a rational case for morality of the legal short term interest rate loan and the illegal short term high interest loan - both are equally immoral, yet one is a crime and the other is not.
In any case, if you are going to start going after the sins like greed, lust, and anger, you will soon find that such a task, especially in regards to the sin of greed, shows that the line between criminal and noncriminal is drawn in such a way that it does not support your position that criminals are immoral people who could have controlled their actions better. In moral terms, greed is greed whether it is expressed in legal means or illegal means. Perhaps you might find that far from being less moral than others, criminals instead suffer from less self control (perhaps due to addiction, substance abuse, mental illness, or the lack). The fact is in moral terms, you are just as guilty of the sin of greed as the theif pretty much unless you are living as a monk under a vow of poverty. Santicimony aside, it seems that the direction you are heading in actually inevitably points to vast hypocracy - morally, there is no difference between legal greed and illegal greed - both have committed the same sin.
Thus, it seems counterproductive to rail against the immoral criminals who need to be locked up and object to alternatives to incarceration especially ones which treat drug abuse as a disease and treat mental illnesses - there isn't a clean connection between law and morality (as shown, some which is immoral is legal and some which is illegal is not immoral) and people should humble themselves. Rather than condemning the criminal, one should say "There but the Grace of God go I" - which isn't to say that persons who commit crimes should not be punished, but that a system based on the notion that criminals are somehow less moral than the general public is doomed to failure. We are all humans and we all have our vices. Just because our vices are legal doesn't mean that we are neccessarily better than those whose vices are illegal. It says that our criminal justice system should not lose track of the old idea (which appears to be out of fashion lately) of rehabilitation and treatment. Incarceration of the criminal hardly solves the problems of society - instead it attempts to hide society's failure.
Posted by: Zack | Jun 24, 2008 3:33:01 PM
"A good defense, Bill, assuming you are comfortable saying that your pro-prison attitude can/should be suspended anytime we find 'highly unusual circumstances.'"
I wouldn't say anytime. Executive clemency is extremely rare, and under the Constitution it is discretionary, i,e., not subject to review by either of the other branches. It is not and to my knowledge never has been considered to be part of the normal sentencing process.
"If so, we might readily look at all post-Booker debates as simply a debate over who has highly unusual circumstances AND who gets to make that call. Notably, Judge Walton did not think Libby's case merited an exception from the pro-prison philosophy you tout though Prez. Bush obviously concluded otherwise."
Reasonable minds differ on all sorts of things, and this case was one. The New York Times, which detests both Bush and the war, was furious at the commutation and gave the impression that it would have liked to see Libby in jail for a zillion years. (It also labelled me a "conservative activist," although for 80% of my career at DOJ I was a career person).
The Washington Post, which dislikes Bush but supports the war, said that some leniency was deserved from Judge Walton's sentence, but that my proposal went too far.
The Wall Street Journal in essence said I was a weenie for not supporting a full pardon.
As I say, reasonable minds differed over this. And as you say, the President gets the last call. ANY executive clemency is, by definition, a deviation from the sentencing court's judgment. That's just the nature of things.
"Moreover, given that Libby's crime was very similar to Victor Rita's (albeit in a lower-profile setting), I am not sure it is accurate to call Libby's crime/sentence 'highly unusual' even though it was obviously highly politicized."
I disagree with you here. I would be willing to say under oath that Libby's case was highly unusual. In my experience, a 56 year-old first offender is highly unusual all by itself, putting to one side everything else that was unusual about the case. The great majority of first offenders I ran across in the USAO were less than half Libby's age.
Victor Rita got something even rarer than a presidential commutation: He got review on the merits by the Supreme Court (thanks to you, I believe).
"The broader point, which you seem to acknowledge, is that every principle has exceptions."
Only a nut would argue with that.
"You seem comfortable with a prison presumption unless you find a good reason not to imprison. Others, myself included, would flip the presumption: don't imprison unless there is a good reason to do so."
This point by itself merits a longer discussion than we can possibly do right now, so just let me say that (1) for my entire life, and I believe for decades before that, prison was looked upon as the standard punishment for a felony, (2) it was developed as a more humane alternative to public humiliation and floggings, etc., that historically preceded it, (3) it has just-desserts and incapacitation effects that are not matched by other sorts of sanctions, and (4) it gets the defendant's attention (and therefore holds at least some hope of changing his behavior) in a way that other sanctions don't.
To my knowledge, neither the Sentencing Commission nor Congress, under either party, has seriously considered replacing imprisonment with alternative punishments.
"I like to think my anti-prison presumption resonates with the commitment of the Framers to human liberty and individual rights and limited government power..."
There is no evidence known to me that the Framers thought "human liberty," as that phrase is ordinarily used, extended to those convicted of serious crimes.
"But I would guess you believe your approach is more in the tradition of our great nation. (Fortunately, we all recognize the value and importance of a healthy and respectful debate on these topics.)"
No argument there. Indeed, it's the quality of the debate here that, as Michael Corleone said, "draws me back in."
Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 24, 2008 4:02:49 PM