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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Second chances can be costly

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2013: It was a routine murder in the Metro East, hardly a “Stop the Presses!” caliber story in an urban area where murder is pretty routine. In most major markets, a viewer can contract a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder from watching the 6 o’clock news and St. Louis is no exception. Somebody is always killing someone…

In this case, one Scott L. Thompson is charged with doing in Dakota C. Jones, then throwing his corpse into a lake. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, which is not a painless way to depart this mortal coil. In the inexact vernacular, the killer beat his victim’s brains out with a bludgeon of some sort.

As of this writing, motive is unclear. Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons characterized the incident as “a tragic, random act of violence.” Nothing particularly remarkable about the crime itself.

What caught my eye about the story was the fact that this was not the suspect’s first trip to the rodeo. Thompson had been previously convicted of the 1989 murder of an 88-year old woman whom he stabbed repeatedly with a steak knife. He was 17 at the time and was subsequently sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Last February — 24 years after the slaughter of the hapless octogenarian — a freshly rehabilitated Thompson was returned to society to begin a second chance at becoming a productive citizen. Now it’s August; and he’s back in the slam and another victim is dead.  Well, nobody ever claimed that parole boards are infallible.

In fact, Bureau of Justice statistics would argue quite the opposite. Fifty-four percent of parolees re-offend within three years of release. That figure is impressive because it reflects only the ones who got caught. As a significant number of crimes go unsolved, you must conclude that the actual rate of recidivism is higher.

Thompson’s discouraging saga was reported in the Post-Dispatch  just after Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for ordinary drug offenders charged in federal court. Though Mr. Holder’s new policy specifically exempts violent defendants, the rationale behind the effort is similar to that which returned Thompson to our midst.

The attorney general believes addicts are better treated than punished and contends that their imprisonment needlessly inflates our already elevated incarceration rates. Let’s consider those assertions sequentially.

Addicts are sick. A heroin junkie, for instance, needs his “fix” to “get straight.” His initial exposure to the narcotic may have resulted from a moral failing but his present problem is medical. Treatment would thus be preferable to confinement — if treatment were effective and if the only person harmed by his addiction were himself. Unfortunately, neither of these propositions happens to be true.

Success rates for addiction treatment are difficult to gauge. Practitioners understandably promote the efficacy of their own approach to the problem and case histories are hard to come by because of medical privacy issues. There is, however, general agreement that somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of patients relapse at least once during therapy.

And that’s for people who want to quit — the afflicted who have voluntarily entered treatment. You have to anticipate even worse results from a reluctant population whose rehabilitation is court-ordered.

The uncertainties of treatment would be bearable if narcotics abuse were a victimless crime, but that’s not the case. Drugs are expensive. A hard-core heroin addict may have a $100-$200-a-day habit. Because addiction doesn’t take off weekends and holidays, that’s a 365-day-a-year tab. The serious junkie thus needs somewhere between $36,500 and $73,000 annually just to feed the monkey on his back.

Female users often resort to prostitution to make ends meet. That strategy works until the drug and its attendant lifestyle take their predictable toll on their sex appeal. Male users usually have two options: steal or deal.

Those who steal have to steal a lot because the allure of hot merchandise is its cheap price. The thief gets a fraction of actual value of his loot from his fence, a fact that accounts for most street robberies, car break-ins and residential burglaries.

Those who deal narcotics to feed their habit necessarily recruit new addicts. In either case, these putatively harmless drug users are walking crime waves.

While the nation’s chief law enforcement officer rails against the injustice of mandatory minimums, a federal grant funds overtime for state and local officers on the east side to combat open-air drug markets.

According to the Post-Dispatch, “Operation Wild, Wild East” yielded charges against 58 suspects, some of which were enhanced because the alleged crimes took place “within 1,000 feet of a school or church.”

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly describes the “state of lawlessness” as so blatant in four targeted municipalities that they qualified as “failed states.” Yet, most of these suspects are the very people the U.S. attorney general now proposes to return to the streets. Go figure…

It is currently popular in progressive circles to decry the nation’s shocking rate of incarceration. Approximately 2.2 million inmates are now held in American jails and prisons. While that figure is well under 1 percent of the total population, it still represents a lot of inmates.

No informed statistician can deny, however, that as the incarceration rate has risen, the crime rate has plummeted. Though crime remains a prime societal concern, its incidence has dropped to 50-year lows because get-tough measures have confined more offenders for longer periods of time.

The present impetus to reduce the prison population by giving the wolves an early second chance figures to prove costly for the sheep. Some will conclude a pleasant evening downtown by discovering their car window smashed and the contents of the glove box strewn about the floorboards. An unlucky few will wind up face-down in a nearby lake.

Prison is expensive and inhumane but so is the alternative…

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