Politics & Policy

Throw Away The Key

The only way to cut crime rates further.

A convicted felon is rearrested for another crime, shortly after being released back into the public. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

It is. Things like this happen all the time.

The great open secret in crime-fighting circles is that felons are routinely released from prison, with full expectation that most of them will be rearrested again for additional felonies. The off-the-record reason routinely given (at least when I was working on crime issues on the Hill) is that the cost of incarceration is simply too great to keep dangerous felons behind bars.

The latest example of the revolving door just made the newspapers last month. Here’s how the Associated Press tells it:

[Michael T. Crane], who had served probation for other sex crimes, was convicted in 1994 in Johnson County, Kan., for attacking a video store clerk in the Kansas City suburb of Leawood.

He was sentenced to 35 years to life for kidnapping, attempted rape, and attempted sodomy. But the convictions were overturned on technical grounds by the Kansas Supreme Court in 1996, and the following year Crane pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of aggravated sexual battery. He was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison.

As he was approaching release, the state sought to have him kept in confinement, and a jury determined him to be a violent sexual predator.…

Crane, who remained in custody for more than three years after finishing his sentence, was released in January last year after doctors concluded his mental condition had changed and that he was no longer a threat.

On June 18, Crane was arrested following a DNA semen match for the violent March rape of a woman in her car outside an apartment building.

What will the state of Kansas tell that woman? What do the lawmakers, judges, and “medical experts” have to say to all the women who are raped, and to all the children who are molested, by known felons?

This is not some isolated incident. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) does excellent statistical research. Their studies, released to surprisingly little fanfare, identify the problem and point the way towards a solution quite vividly. If only lawmakers would read them.

BJS has published two key studies that will make your blood boil. Both should be required reading for every lawmaker, every candidate, and every citizen in the U.S.

The first examines the single most important statistic in crime fighting: The time actually served by a criminal for his crime. Long sentences are not just irrelevant, they are downright misleading. The question we should always ask is: How long will this criminal actually be kept away from us?

BJS reports on this in “Prison Sentences and Time Served for Violence,” which covers prisoners released from state prisons in 1992. (The report is here in text form and here in pdf format.) While the data is getting old, it is the best we have. (Memo to Congress: Fund an update, ASAP.) Here are some lowlights from this study:

“Violent offenders released from state prisons in 1992 served 48 percent of the sentence they had received — an average of 43 months in confinement, both jail and prison, on an average sentence of 89 months.”

The average time served for homicide was 71 months.

The average time served for rape was 65 months.

The average time served for sexual assault was 35 months. (Another BJS study — here or here adds that two-thirds of these victims are under age 18, one-third are under age 12, and 14 percent are under age 6.)

Now, let’s note some important limitations in the statistics. Because this study only reports on released felons, it provides an artificially low figure for time served relative to all convicted felons. After all, those not released — because they are serving very long sentences, for example — are not part of the sample. Also, truth-in-sentencing laws have most likely upped these numbers in the last decade (the report shows that from 1988 to 1992 the average time served for violent offenders increased from 41 to 43 months). That said, the numbers are still strikingly low.

But the fact that we release murderers, sexual predators, and other violent felons too quickly tells only part of the story. If these released criminals were to go on to live model lives, we would be hard-pressed to complain too loudly. But BJS has also studied the other part of the problem, recidivism of these felons, in “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994.” (The report is here and here.) The report studied a sample of nearly 300,000 prisoners released in 1994, representing two-thirds of all prisoners released nationwide that year. Again, the numbers are almost a decade old, but still horrifying:

“Among those released in 1994, 67.5% were rearrested within 3 years,” and “46.9% were reconvicted for a new crime” within three years. This does not count those not apprehended in those three years, or any crimes they committed after 1997.

“The 272,111 offenders discharged in 1994 had accumulated 4.1 million arrest charges before their most recent imprisonment and another 744,000 charges within 3 years of release,” a total of about 18 charges each, and 67.8 percent had a record of violence.

“Seventy percent had five or more prior arrests (not including the arrest that brought them to prison), and half had two or more prior convictions (not including the conviction that resulted in their prison sentence).”

Among the new charges were 2,900 new homicides, 2,400 new rapes, 3,200 new other sexual assaults, 21,200 new robberies, 54,600 new assaults, and 40,300 new burglaries. That’s a lot of new victims from felons we had already safely locked away, particularly when you consider that these are charges brought just against those criminals released in 1994, not those released in 1993, 1995, 1996, etc.

So we are releasing violent predators after ridiculously short sentences, fully aware that two-thirds of them will be rearrested within just three years. As Bob Dole would say, “Where’s the outrage?”

Americans have shown since 9/11 that they are fully supportive of committing taxpayer resources to homeland security. There is nothing to suggest that they would balk at the cost of incarcerating dangerous felons for longer periods, especially when it is so easy to demonstrate the societal costs of releasing them.

Lawmakers love to point to their support for measures such as Megan’s Law, which provides citizens notice when a sexual predator moves into their neighborhood. But why is that seen as success instead of the failure it is? Check out two examples of actual sex-offender registries, here and here, and decide for yourself if these people should be living in our neighborhoods.

Someday, a savvy candidate will run against the premise of Megan’s Law, which is that we must meekly accept known molesters and rapists living near our families. This candidate would run instead with printouts from those sex-offender registries in one hand, and copies of the two BJS studies in the other hand. This candidate would run on a simple premise: The longer the sentences for all violent felons, the fewer future victims of crime.

The Giuliani-driven law-enforcement reforms that swept the nation and helped cut crime rates dramatically in the 1990s have done about as much as they can to reduce crime. If we hope to reduce crime rates further, we will have to get serious about the recidivism crisis. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in March upholding “three-strikes” laws is a start. But now we need leadership from a lawmaker somewhere who is not satisfied with the revolving prison doors we have tolerated for so long.

Michael Paranzino, a government-affairs consultant with PPC Strategies, Inc., helped develop Aimee’s Law (included in PL 106-386), which offers states incentives to keep murderers and sexual predators behind bars.

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