Recently KQED Newsroom aired an interesting show about the effect Prop. 47 has had on crime in California. Proposition 47 was a measure to redefine some nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors, resulting in the resentencing and earlier release of many of those prisoners. I try to stay away from political issues in this blog, but as a retired FBI agent and attorney, I have knowledge and experience in this area, as well as strong feelings, so I will get on my soapbox.
Prop. 47 was a bad idea and I opposed it. Now that the early statistics are out, I am even more strongly against it. It has increased crime of all kinds. I won’t bother to go into the statistics. You can follow the above link to the show to see the numbers and hear people on both sides put their spin on it, but rates are up. What I want to focus on in this post is the misconception that nonviolent crimes are somehow less worthy of incarceration than violent crimes. In my experience, “nonviolent” offenders are at least as dangerous as “violent” ones. I put the words in quotes because, as I’ll explain, they are highly misleading when used in the context of sentencing.
Let’s start by identifying what qualifies as a violent crime. People probably think of murder as number one, the worst. Child molesters perhaps are as bad. Domestic abuse, robbery, aggravated assault all qualify. One controversial one is burglary. I’ll get to that later. There are more, but let’s agree that these are all bad crimes deserving jail. Nonviolent crimes include drug offenses, drunk driving, white collar crimes like embezzlement or fraud, corruption, and so on. You probably think those things are bad, too, but those folks don’t pose as much risk to you as the first group. You would be wrong. You are much more likely to be victimized by the second group, and have a more serious deleterious effect from them, too.
Consider these “violent” offenders, all real cases in my personal experience. A drunk walks into a bank and passes a note to a teller saying to give him all her money. He doesn’t have or pretend to have a weapon, but one hand is below the level of the counter where the teller can’t see it. The amused teller gives him $1200 in cash (bait money) and he walks out of the bank; his photo is recorded in multiple places around the bank. He is caught within hours, and the money is recovered. (If you’ve seen the Woody Allen movie Take the Money and Run, it’s not far from that, and this is a pretty typical bank robbery, although some can be violent). The robber goes to jail for a long stretch for robbery because the prosecutor argued that he put the teller in fear.
Next case: a young (age 22) male high school teacher, in his first job out of college, is pursued by several female students who think he’s “hot” or “cute.” He stupidly begins to date one of them secretly, a seventeen-year-old who is too shapely and aggressive to resist and who is also well-experienced sexually. They have sex. They break up. Another girl makes a play for him and the first girl out of jealousy complains that he seduced her. He is convicted of being a child molester. He must register as a sex offender and never teach again. He may not even be able to find a place to live since child molesters have severe restrictions on that.
A mechanic stays sober and works hard during the week, providing for his family. On the weekends he gets drunk and beats his wife. She sometimes calls the cops, but usually it is neighbors who do. She refuses to testify against him, but he gets convicted anyway based on eyewitness reports. While he’s in prison she takes up with some other guy who beats her worse, and her kids, and takes what little money she has. When her husband gets out she goes back to him. This happens multiple times. He’s a model prisoner and has never hurt anyone besides his wife.
Let me make clear that all these criminals did bad things. I highly disapprove of them and have no sympathy for any of them. I’d like to ship them all off to Australia, but the English ruined that option for the rest of us. But the question is one of triage. If we have to let someone out of prison due to overcrowding, do any of these people represent a danger to the general public? Almost none, yet they would not be eligible for early release.
Now for more real-life cases of nonviolent criminals. One case I had was a guy who dealt pot and fenced stolen goods. When people were slow to pay, he would send an enforcer around to rough them up or threaten to hurt their family. He admitted to me he was addicted to pot. He drove stoned to and from his regular job every day. His regular job was installing and maintaining avionic systems in aircraft. He plead guilty to possession of stolen property. A drunk driver was caught driving drunk many times. The first four or five times he got it tossed or reduced to reckless driving or other offenses. He kept his license each time. Then he finally got convicted of drunk driving, but did only minimal time in jail on weekends since he had a job. This happened five times. He went to substance abuse programs or counseling or rehab after every one of those. He kept his license, with restrictions only to drive to and from work. He violated the conditions and was convicted again. His license was revoked. When he got out he continued to drive drunk and killed three pedestrians in a crosswalk.
Three pals operated a real estate “investment” that was actually a Ponzi (pyramid) scheme. The typical victim: a well off 80-year-old man whose family told him it was too good to be true. Unknown to them, he sold all the stocks and other assets and borrowed heavily, putting it all into the scheme anyway. He ended up losing millions and going into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him and went on welfare. His children had to use up the college funds of their kids to pay off the mortgage so their mother would still have the family home. The man lost all his friends because he had persuaded them to put money into the scam. He became a broken man and his family embittered and impoverished. Multiply this by hundreds of victims. The three pals who started the scheme had a life history of schemes and theft, from shoplifting to stealing supplies and equipment from their employers to sell on craigslist to pump-and-sell schemes with penny stocks. Although caught only a few times, they never did any serious time. Even for this Ponzi scheme involving hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of victims, they were sentenced to only four years, less than the “violent” bank robber above. “Nonviolent” offenders get much shorter sentences to start with; they’re already getting early release. We shouldn’t be making it even earlier.
These are real cases, not fanciful ones. Which of these criminals poses the most danger to you or your family if let out of prison? I’m certainly not characterizing all, or most, violent criminals as harmless, nor most nonviolent criminals as dangerous. I’m only pointing out that by putting emphasis on whether the crime is violent or not misses the boat. In my experience, more lives are ruined by the nonviolent offenders. The reality is that the two highest predictors for someone revictimizing a member of the general public (i.e. you or your loved one) is addiction (drugs or alcohol) and thievery in any form. Thieves and addicts almost never stop. That’s how they make a living. They may devise more sophisticated ways as they age, but once a thief, always a thief. That’s why burglars are rightfully classified as violent in my opinion. Just because they haven’t hurt or threatened anyone with violence, they enter homes or cars to steal and the potential for a deadly confrontation is always there. Many carry weapons and many are stoned at the time. Just because they are caught later with the goods and only convicted of larceny or possession of stolen weapons, or maybe even burglary, doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have attacked or killed the homeowner or family dog if circumstances had been slightly different.
Prop. 47 is a failure. If reforms are proposed to fix it, vote for them. If you’re in another state considering laws similar to Prop. 47, vote no, or tell your legislator to vote no.