Tag Archives: life sentence

The Practical Case for Parole for Violent Offenders

From the NY Times                 By MARC MORJÉ HOWARD                     AUG. 8, 2017
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An inmate at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama. Credit: William Widmer for The New York Times

The American criminal justice system is exceptional, in the worst way possible: It combines exceptionally coercive plea bargaining, exceptionally long sentences, exceptionally brutal prison conditions and exceptionally difficult obstacles to societal re-entry.

This punitiveness makes us stand out as uniquely inhumane in comparison with other industrialized countries. To remedy this, along with other changes, we must consider opening the exit doors — and not just for the “easy” cases of nonviolent drug offenders. Yes, I’m suggesting that we release some of the people who once committed serious, violent crimes.

There’s widespread agreement that current practices are unsustainable. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, yet has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The grim reality of American justice is that there are 2.3 million people behind bars, five million on parole or probation, 20 million with felony convictions and over 70 million with a criminal record.

That’s why sentencing reform — mainly consisting of reduced penalties for drug-related crimes — has received bipartisan support at both the federal and state levels. But this isn’t enough. We should also bring back discretionary parole — release before a sentence is completed — even for people convicted of violent crimes if they’ve demonstrated progress during their imprisonment.

Other democracies regularly allow such prisoners to be granted reduced sentences or conditional release. But in the United States the conversation about this common-sense policy became politicized decades ago. As a result, discretionary parole has largely disappeared in most states and was eliminated in the federal system. Prisoners whose sentences include a range of years — such as 15 to 25 years, or 25 years to life — can apply to their state’s parole board for discretionary parole, but they almost always face repeated denials and are sent back to wither away behind bars despite evidence of rehabilitation. (Inmates who have served their maximum sentence are released on what is called mandatory parole.)

But this fear-driven thinking is irrational, counterproductive and inhumane. It bears no connection to solid research on how criminals usually “age out” of crime, especially if they have had educational and vocational opportunities while incarcerated. It permanently excludes people who would be eager to contribute to society as law-abiding citizens, while taxpayers spend over $30,000 a year to house each prisoner. And it deprives hundreds of thousands of people of a meaningful chance to earn their freedom.

But are prisoners who have served long sentences for violent crimes genuinely capable of reforming and not reoffending? The evidence says yes. In fact, only about 1 percent of people convicted of homicide are arrested for homicide again after their release. Moreover, a recent “natural experiment” in Maryland is very telling. In 2012, the state’s highest court decided that Maryland juries in the 1970s had been given faulty instructions. Some defendants were retried, but many others accepted plea bargains for time served and were released. As a result, about 150 people who had been deemed the “worst of the worst” have been let out of prison — and none has committed a new crime or even violated parole.

This outcome may sound surprising, but having spent one afternoon a week for the past three years teaching in a maximum-security prison in Maryland, I’m not shocked at all. Many of the men I teach would succeed on the outside if given the chance. They openly recognize their past mistakes, deeply regret them and work every day to grow, learn and make amends. Many of them are serving life sentences with a theoretical chance of parole, but despite submitting thick dossiers of their accomplishments in prison along with letters of support from their supervisors and professors, they are routinely turned down.

Over the past several years, I have brought in hundreds of Georgetown students for tours that include a meeting with a panel of prisoners, and I have accompanied nearly 50 academic colleagues who have delivered lectures to my incarcerated students. Without fail, the things that stand out to visitors are the same things that haunt me: the compassion, engagement and intellect of people who made terrible mistakes long ago but should not be perpetually defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.

Until recently the political situation was favorable to bipartisan criminal justice reform. But the election of a self-described “law and order candidate,” the doubling of the stock prices of private-prison companies and the return of the discredited war on drugs gives an indication of the direction of the current administration.

But whenever a real discussion about reform does come, policy makers should look beyond the boundaries of the United States.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that all long-term prisoners should be released nor that the perspectives of crime victims should be ignored. Serious crimes warrant long sentences. But other democracies provide better models for running criminal justice and prison systems. Perhaps we could learn from them and acquire a new mind-set — one that treats prisons as sites to temporarily separate people from society while creating opportunities for personal growth, renewal and eventual re-entry of those who are ready for it.

Marc Morjé Howard is the director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown, where he is a professor of government and law, and is the author of “Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment and the Real American Exceptionalism.”

While ‘affluenza’ teen went free, similar case led to prison

This Jan. 27, 2016 photo shows Jaime Arellano during an interview in the visitor’s room at the… Read more  [This story courtesy of The Marshall Project and the Associate Press]. 

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — One 16-year-old drove drunk, ran a red light and crashed into a pregnant woman’s car, killing her and her unborn child. Another drunken teenager rammed a pickup truck into a crowd of people assisting a stranded driver, killing four.

Jaime Arellano went to prison. Ethan Couch went free.

The stories of the two Texas teens illustrate how prosecutors’ decisions in similar cases can lead to wildly different outcomes. The poor immigrant from Mexico has been behind bars for almost a decade. The white kid with rich parents got 10 years of probation.

 Couch lost control as he drove his family’s pickup truck after he and his friends had played beer pong and consumed beer that some of them had stolen from Wal-Mart. The vehicle veered into a crowd of people helping the driver on the side of the road. Authorities later estimated that he was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.

The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.

But prosecutors in Fort Worth said they didn’t ask to have his case moved to the adult system because they thought the judge would refuse. Instead, he stayed in juvenile court and became infamous for his psychologist’s assertion that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility the psychologist called “affluenza.”

Arellano was charged with intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, the same counts against Couch. But prosecutors in Arellano’s case moved quickly after his June 2007 crash to send him to adult court. Arellano took a plea deal and got 20 years in prison, where he remains today.

Sending Arellano’s case to the adult system opened the door to the kind of punishment many say Couch should have received from the beginning.

Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney and head of the office that prosecuted Arellano, declined to comment on Couch’s case but said he considered adult prison to be a fair option for any teenager who has killed someone.

Juveniles don’t always commit “what people think of as juvenile crimes,” Bingham said. “There is an appropriate punishment for what they have done. And the fact that they’re 16 years of age doesn’t negate that.”

Arellano could never have argued he had “affluenza.”

Arellano and his family crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally two years before the crash and settled in East Texas. He spoke little English and had little knowledge of the court system. Five months before the crash, he dropped out of high school.

Now 24, he spoke to The Associated Press about his case from behind a narrow glass partition at a Texas prison. Wearing a white inmate uniform, he spoke in soft, accented English that he said he learned while in prison.

Arellano had his first beer at 15 and had driven drunk a few times before. His parents tried to stop him from driving under the influence, but he said he wouldn’t listen.

“They talked to me way too many times,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to hear it.”

On the night of June 23, 2007, Arellano was driving an SUV through Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas, on his way to a party. He had an open beer and several more in a cooler.

Witnesses saw him swerve through the intersection and slam into a Ford Mustang making a left turn ahead, according to police reports.

Driving the Mustang was Martha Mondragon, a 31-year-old woman who was nine months’ pregnant. Mondragon and the child she was carrying were killed. Her 6-year-old daughter flew out of her booster seat and through a car window. She was hospitalized and survived.

Prosecutors quickly sought to have Arellano’s case moved to adult court, and a judge agreed.

At that point, Arellano faced two choices: a plea deal with the promise of 20 years in prison and possible parole after a decade, or a jury trial in one of the most conservative regions of the United States and the risk of 50 years in prison. He took the plea.

While he once thought he might have gotten probation if he were white, Arellano said he doesn’t feel that way today.

“I know it was serious,” he said. “It had to happen this way so I could better myself, so I could think better.”

Arellano becomes eligible for parole next year. Once released, he expects to be deported to Mexico, where he hopes to work on a ranch.

Couch faces possible detention for violating his probation when he returns to court on Feb. 19. Depending on the judge’s ruling, he could get three months in jail and adult probation, which if violated could land him in prison for up to 40 years.

In the juvenile system, intoxication manslaughter cases in Texas over the last decade were just as likely to result in probation as they are detention, according to figures from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Juvenile justice experts say the state’s juvenile system places more weight on rehabilitation than the adult system, where punishments are tougher.

Since 2005, Texas has prosecuted 38 juveniles for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault. Only three were sent to the adult system, and half of all cases resulted in probation of some kind.

Those numbers do not include juveniles who commit similar offenses but might be charged with different crimes or cases not reported by local authorities to the state.

Once juveniles are in detention, it’s more likely than not that they will go free when they turn 19. Only 33 percent of all juvenile offenders are sent to adult prison, according to a study of juvenile sentencing conducted by the University of North Texas professor Chad Trulson.

Trulson said a probation sentence for killing four people might seem “absurd” to the average person.

But in the juvenile system, he said, that type of sentence for intoxication manslaughter and potentially more serious offenses “is probably more typical than we would think.”

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Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant .

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This story has been corrected to show that Mondragon was 31, not 33.