Killing off our public safety officials

With the recent murders of a DA and Assistant DA in Texas as well as the head of the Colorado prison system, it seems as if the rules are changing.  Don’t like a prosecution?  Kill the prosecutor.  Don’t like what happened to you in prison?  Kill the head of the prison system.  This desire to kill public safety officials is not a new one, but we need to think more about why this sudden uptick.

There is much to write and speculate about in both of these instances.  Were, particularly the Texas slayings, the work of white supremacists?  And what about the fact that the DA McLelland was armed but unable to prevent his and his wife’s deaths?

The New York Times story begins

After the daylight assassination of his deputy two months ago, Mike McLelland, the district attorney in largely rural Kaufman County, responded with a flash of angry bravado, denigrating the perpetrators as “scum” and vowing to hunt them down.

A former Army officer who served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, Mr. McLelland carried a gun and refused to be intimidated, according to a friend and the local news media, even as his wife expressed unease, worrying that her husband, too, could be in danger.

The home of Mike McLelland, the district attorney for Kaufman County.

The home of Mike McLelland, the district attorney for Kaufman County.

Is it possible that his bravado and the common knowledge that he was armed goaded the murderer?

Ceremony at the State Capitol building in Denver.

Ceremony at the State Capitol building in Denver.

The killing of prison chief, Tom Clements, does not appear to be caused by any white supremest leanings.  The cause may be prolonged solitary confinement  as Susan Greene wrote for the Colorado Independent.

In the weeks before his death, Evan Ebel, suspected killer of Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements, had broken ties with white supremacist prison gang 211 Crew and was debilitated by the transition from prolonged isolation to social contact, according to a friend and former fellow inmate.

In a series of interviews conducted with The Colorado Independent, parolee Ryan Pettigrew dismissed widespread media speculation that Ebel shot Clements as part of an orchestrated 211 Crew “gang hit.” He said that, over the course of the last few weeks, Ebel was growing increasingly agitated in his adjustment to life outside of prison and beyond the tiny “administrative segregation” cells in which he spent years deprived of regular human contact.

Ironically, Clements worried about the transition from solitary confinement.

In an exclusive interview last spring, Clements said that, immediately after Hickenlooper recruited him from Missouri to run the Colorado corrections department, he found disturbing “one very alarming statistic” he said kept him up at night — that 47 percent of Colorado prisoners being released from isolation were walking directly out onto the streets without help reintegrating into social environments and interacting with people.

Clements wanted longer transition periods and step-down programs before setting isolated prisoners free. As Pettigrew tells it, Ebel said he had little help making that transition. He said altercations during his brief period in a step-down program landed him back in isolation.

“You have to ask yourself the question – How does holding inmates in administrative segregation and then putting them out on a bus into the public, [how does that] square up?” Clements said.

“We have to think about how what we do in prisons impacts the community when [prisoners] leave,” Clements continued. “It’s not just about running the prison safely and securely. There’s a lot of research around solitary and isolation in recent years, some tied to POWs and some to corrections. My experience tells me that long periods of isolation can be counter-productive to stable behavior and long-term rehabilitation goals.”

All three acts of violence did involve guns.  The gun used to kill Clements was purchased legally, but transferred to Ebel illegally as a “straw” purchase.  Would the requirement for a background check on the private transfer have prevented Clements’ death?  Probably not.  Is that a reason not to require universal checks?  No.  There likely would have been no deterrent in this case, but it might just stop someone else.

Race may figure into Prosecutors McLelland and Hasse’s murders, but at least part of the motivation is the prosecution of a gang.  The New York Times story continues

One of several angles investigators have been exploring is whether Mr. Hasse’s killing involved members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas prison gang. Prosecutors in Mr. McLelland’s office had assisted in investigations of the gang, including a recent case that had dealt a major blow to the group’s leadership.

In that case, federal authorities announced in November that a grand jury in Houston had indicted more than 30 senior leaders and other members of the whites-only gang on charges of conspiring to participate in a racketeering enterprise. Federal officials said the defendants were also charged with involvement in three murders, multiple attempted murders, kidnappings and assaults and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and cocaine.

The indictments stemmed from an investigation led by a multiagency task force that included Kaufman County prosecutors and three other district attorneys offices. In December, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a statewide bulletin warning officials that the Aryan Brotherhood was planning retaliation against law enforcement personnel who had helped secure the indictments.

Mr. Hasse was shot the same day that two members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas — Ben Christian Dillon, also known as “Tuff,” of Houston, and James Marshall Meldrum, also known as “Dirty,” of Dallas — pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in Federal District Court in Houston

Boston had a similar murder in 1995 when Paul McLaughlin an ADA known for his prosecution of gang members was murdered as he left a commuter rail station.  The man he was about to prosecute for the third time was convicted for the murder and is serving life.

It is a dangerous life working in the criminal justice system.  The sheer number of guns out there doesn’t help.  Neither does the criminal justice system itself.

Photograph of McLelland home Mike Fuentes/Associated Press

Photograph of Clements ceremony Matthew Staver for The New York Times

Rethinking budget priorities

In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof asks a simple question:  Prisons or Health Care?  We could expand that to ask the states, education or prisons?

At a time when there is no state that is not having trouble balancing its budget and cuts are being made to things like physical education and after school programs while class sizes are increasing, I haven’t heard anyone talk about cost we pay for incarceration.  And our prisons are also overcrowded.  There was a recent distrubance in the Middlesex County jail during which water pipes were destroyed leaving the prison uninhabitable.  We taxpayers will pay to reconstruct the jail, of course.

Why is no one talking about reducing the prison population as a way to save money?  We’ve known for a long time that the three strikes rule is great in baseball, but not so great when it comes to criminal justice, but I haven’t heard of anyone who has repealed their law.

To quote Kristof

It’s time for a fundamental re-evaluation of the criminal justice system, as legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Webb has called for, so that we’re no longer squandering money that would be far better spent on education or health. Consider a few facts:

¶The United States incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average. Of those sentenced to state prisons, 82 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to one study.

¶California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council.

¶For most of American history, we had incarceration rates similar to those in other countries. Then with the “war on drugs” and the focus on law and order in the 1970s, incarceration rates soared.

¶One in 10 black men ages 25 to 29 were imprisoned last year, partly because possession of crack cocaine (disproportionately used in black communities) draws sentences equivalent to having 100 times as much powder cocaine. Black men in the United States have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, according to the Sentencing Project.

I think Jim Webb is becoming one of my favorite Senators.

Senator Webb has introduced legislation that would create a national commission to investigate criminal justice issues — for such a commission may be the best way to depoliticize the issue and give feckless politicians the cover they need to institute changes.

“There are only two possibilities here,” Mr. Webb said in introducing his bill, noting that America imprisons so many more people than other countries. “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

Opponents of universal health care and early childhood education say we can’t afford them. Granted, deficits are a real constraint and we can’t do everything, and prison reform won’t come near to fully financing health care reform. Still, would we rather use scarce resources to educate children and heal the sick, or to imprison people because they used drugs or stole a pair of socks?