Years ago, when two men broke into a house overnight in the suburban town of Cheshire, CT and in the most gruesome manner imaginable killed three women, leaving one survivor, the calls for an overhaul of our criminal justice system were swift and unrelenting (I could have linked every word in that overwrought sentence to a separate post, but I’ll spare you and leave you with just this link instead). Some proposals – three strikes laws, for instance – were thankfully dispatched as ineffective and onerous, while others increasing penalties and creating new laws where old ones already existed were passed and continue to terrorize our criminal courts to this day.
But there was an event and swift, decisive reaction. There was outrage and fist-thumping and a general cacophony best described as madness.
Now, some 5 years later, there are equally troubling events bubbling to the surface in this land of steady habits. These events demand a similarly swift and decisive response from those that purport to speak on our behalf. The difference, however, is that this response needn’t be born of passion, but rather of compassion and logic.
First – and forgive me for being so late to this game – the wound that has opened and refused to scab and heal: racial profiling. Starting with the indictment of 4 East Haven police officers, the mayor’s boneheaded remarks, the long-overdue resignation of the police chief all the way up to the Hartford Courant’s analysis of over 10,000 traffic incident reports, it should be clear to everyone, not just those who are nestled inside the system, that there is an undeniable bias against minorities:
[Just the other day, I was viewing this slideshow of photographs taken by a reporter in 1983, documenting the protests against the KKK right here in CT and for a brief moment, deluded myself into thinking that racism and racial stereotyping were thankfully a thing of the past. Don't make the mistake I did. It's still there. You just can't see it.]
The disparity was most striking among Hispanic motorists, who were more likely than both whites and blacks to be ticketed in each of 13 categories of violations — such as speeding, cellphone violations, running stop signs and improper license-plate display — for which there were at least 1,000 stops. Black drivers fared worse than whites in 10 of the 13 categories.
For violations of state laws on tinted windows, white motorists were ticketed 12 percent of the time. For blacks and Hispanics, the figure was 17 percent and 24 percent, respectively.
Among drivers stopped for an improper turn or stop, blacks were nearly 50 percent more likely to be ticketed than whites. Hispanics were twice as likely.
That this is something that should be prohibited occurred to the wise men of the Senate as far back as 1999, when they passed a state law outlawing profiling and requiring each department to submit racial data for analysis. But like a bandaid on a gaping head wound, it was never more than lip service. The reason for that, of course, is that this problem is systemic. It’s also a problem without a solution, at least as currently imagined. So let’s assume someone gets pulled over because of racial profiling and gets a ticket. So what? What can anyone do about it? What’s the remedy? Short of a vindictive prosecution type of argument, how is someone even going to prove it? And what’s the legal basis for a judge or prosecutor to take that into account if we ever get over the hurdle of making them believe that that’s the cause of the stop?
The change has to come from the system, not imposed on it. Those in power – judges and prosecutors – have to first admit that this problem exists and then view stops with skepticism and suspicion and not take the word of police officers as gospel.
A few years ago I worked with a clerk who was a young Hispanic male. In the three years we worked together, he got 7 tickets, all from the same police department in the town where our office was. We all knew he got pulled over because he was Hispanic. Fat load of good it did him. He still had to pay 7 tickets.
The only other solution, of course, is the wholesale federal indictment and prosecution of errant officers. This, obviously, is not tenable. But there have to be repercussions; a system purporting to provide justice cannot turn a blind eye to the injustices that populate its halls on a daily basis.
Let’s play a little game. I’ll posit some well known facts and then I’ll tell you whether they’re true or not.
Q: Is it true that all sex offenders kill their victims?
Q: Is it true that all sex offenders are possessed by the devil and can’t even be killed by the Colt?
Q: Is it true that the minute you let a sex offender out of jail, he goes and eats another baby?
Q: Is it true that sex offenders have the highest (or even high) rate of recidivism?
A study [PDF] by the state Office of Policy and Management has finally vindicated what I (and others) have been saying for a long time now: sex offenders don’t reoffend at the same rates as other felons and the common perception of their rates of recidivism is incorrect. From the study:
The study tracked 14,398 men for a five-year period following their release or discharge from a Connecticut prison in 2005. In that cohort, 1,395 men had a previous arrest for a sex offense, 846 had a conviction and 746 served a prison sentence, either the one ending in 2005 or an earlier one, for a sex offense.
Looking at the 746 men who had served time for a sex crime, 27, or 3.6 percent, were arrested and charged with a new sex crime; 20, or 2.7 percent, were convicted of a new sex offense; and 13, or 1.7 percent, were returned to prison for a new sex crime. Many among the 746 committed other crimes — many for parole violations or violating the conditions of the sex offender registry — but not sex crimes.
Those are spectacularly low rates (yes, yes, I know, one child is one child too many) that don’t justify the resources and the energy put into incarcerating these offenders and nor do they justify the onerous sentences handed out to all and sundry.
Obviously there are those who have committed grievous offenses and must be punished accordingly, but that’s exactly my point: that, contrary to popular belief, sex offenders aren’t one-size fits all and we must treat them as such. There are those who are low risk, those who are medium risk and those who are high risk. There are those who are misguided teens with angry parents and those who are truly predatory. Our system paints them all with the same scarlet letter and such a homogenous view does nothing to keep us safe or to put our resources where they are most needed.
The Court article linked to above calls for the creation of a tiered registration system. There already exists a Risk Assessment Board. Fund it. I have additional suggestions: pass legislation that makes it clear that an offender does not have to admit to committing the crime during treatment, that they don’t have to confess to other crimes. People are routinely violated (yes, I know, it’s an awful word) for failing to “admit” their crime during treatment even if they steadfastly maintained their innocence throughout the proceedings. Hey, here’s a news flash: innocent people go to jail all the time.
Let’s focus our resources on determining who out of those truly pose a danger and who can be rehabilitated. The less people we ostracize, the safer we are.
And so as this short legislative session continues, the question comes into focus: will our legislature be strong enough to eschew the faulty “tough on crime” for the more appropriate “smart on crime”? Will these events – the racial profiling and the studies – be enough to jar them out of their steady habits and, for once, enact some meaningful reforms?