Sentences for Violent Criminals Are Too Short, Thanks to Criminal Justice ‘Reform’

Hans Bader | May 17, 2016 | 5:06pm EDT
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 Inmates are housed in what was once a multi-purpose recreation room at the Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The criminal justice system is too lenient in punishing most violent crimes, theft, and embezzlement. That’s especially true in the District of Columbia, where criminals go on to commit rape and murder because they were spared any real punishment for prior offenses. The Washington Post today provides a revealing glimpse into how soft-on-crime policies result in tragedy, in a story titled “How a violent offender slipped through D.C. justice system: Lenient Sentencing and law enforcement can give many chances despite repeated criminal behavior.”

It describes the case of Antwon Durrell Pitt, on trial for raping a 5 feet tall, 100-pound woman, and breaking her eye socket and cheekbone, after being spared any real punishment for past criminal acts, “including eight arrests in four years and a robbery conviction. Three times, he was sentenced under laws designed to promote leniency and second chances for inexperienced adult offenders. In two of these cases, he was sentenced under the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, a 1980s-era law aimed at ‘deserving’ offenders under the age of 22.”

This law is frequently cited by so-called “criminal justice reform” advocates as a model for states to use to reduce what they call “mass incarceration.” As the Washington Post notes, “Pitt’s case shows that such laws” can “give many chances to violent offenders despite repeated criminal behavior and the failure to abide by terms of release.” Thanks to “criminal justice reform,” states like California are now paroling even people who committed especially vicious, agonizing, and premeditated murders at ages of 22 or less. As The Post notes, the state of California “has ordered parole hearings for longtime inmates convicted of committing violent crimes before they turned 23 … Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has approved parole for roughly 2,300 lifers convicted of murder.”

The war on drugs is a failure, and sentences for drug offenders need to be cut (I have publicly advocated legalizing marijuana in newspaper op-eds since 1986, and have publicly advocated criminal justice reforms to prevent unnecessary incarceration of drug offenders and prosecution of people for victimless regulatory crimes).

But few people are in state prisons for just using drugs. The reason the United States has the world’s largest prison population is because it is one of the world’s most populous countries, and has a much higher violent crime rate than most developed countries, or the world’s most populous country, China. As Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute notes in the Wall Street Journal, “the state-prison population (which accounts for 87% of the nation’s prisoners) is dominated by violent criminals and serial thieves. In 2013 drug offenders made up less than 16% of the state-prison population; violent felons were 54% and property offenders 19%.” The U.S. has more prisoners that other countries because the “U.S. homicide rate is seven times higher than the combined rate of 21 Western developed nations plus Japan, according to a 2011 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the UCLA School of Public Health.”

As Heather Mac Donald notes,

“Contrary to the advocates’ claim that the U.S. criminal-justice system is mindlessly draconian, most crime goes unpunished, certainly by a prison term. For every 31 people convicted of a violent felony, another 69 people arrested for violence are released back to the streets, according to a 2007 analysis of state courts by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That low arrest-to-conviction rate reflects, among other things, prosecutors’ decisions not to go forward with a case for lack of cooperative witnesses or technical errors in police paperwork. The JFA Institute estimated in 2007 that in only 3% of violent victimizations and property crimes does the offender end up in prison.

“Far from being prison-happy, the criminal-justice system tries to divert as many people as possible from long-term confinement. “Most cases are triaged with deferred judgments, deferred sentences, probation, workender jail sentences, weekender jail sentences,” writes Iowa State University sociologist Matt DeLisi in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice.

“Offenders given community alternatives “are afforded multiple opportunities to violate these sanctions only to receive additional conditions, additional months on their sentence, or often, no additional punishments at all,” Mr. DeLisi adds. In 2009, 27% of convicted felons in the 75 largest counties received a community sentence of probation or treatment, and 37% were sentenced not to prison but to jail, where sentences top out at one year but are usually completed in a few weeks or months. Only 36% of convicted felons in 2009 got a prison term.”

Advocates of cutting sentences for even violent crime cite rising U.S. incarceration rates since the 1960s.  But this rise was appropriate, not alarming, given the huge increase in the violent crime rate between 1960 and 1990, and the fact that penalties for murder were laughably short in the 1960’s and early 1970’s (murderers spent only about four years in prison, which was a mockery of justice). As Professor Barry Latzer notes in the Wall Street Journal in “The Myth of Mass Incarceration,” “murderers released in 1960 had served a median 4.3 years, which wasn’t long to begin with. By 1970 that figure had dropped to 3.5 years.” “Between 1960 and 1990, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. surged by over 350%, according to FBI data, the biggest sustained buildup in the country’s history.”

The vast majority of support for cutting sentences for violent criminals comes from left-wing progressives. But to mask this reality, left-wing groups are funding purportedly “conservative” groups seeking to reduce maximum penalties for crimes like murder. Some conservatives argue that these are George Soros-funded astroturf groups with few members, that “put conservative in their name to deceive the public.”

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law.

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