Revolving-door Red Flags

Posted on December 4, 2009. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

The Thanksgiving weekend shooting of four police officers at a Washington state coffee shop by an Arkansas prison parolee left nine children fatherless or motherless.

It also left many seething over the revolving-door system that put alleged cop-killer Maurice Clemmons, who was shot and killed by police on Tuesday, back on the streets.

The worst attack on law enforcement in Washington’s history came as a shock, but Clemmons’ violent behavior is hardly surprising. At 17, he punched a woman in the face and stole her purse, robbed a house and brought a gun to school.

“Give me your purse or I’m going to shoot you,” Clemmons told victim Karen Hodge. When she refused, the stocky teen knocked her “halfway across my car,” she said.

Clemmons was convicted of eight felonies and sentenced to consecutive terms, resulting in a 108-year total.

Remorseful youthful offenders don’t typically get such harsh punishment. But although young, Clemmons was reportedly far from penitent. Pulaski County prosecutors recall a criminal whom juries and judge alike recognized as defiant, disdainful and dangerously violent.

“You’ve got to be a bad little dude to draw a sentence like that,” Deputy Prosecutor Mark Fraiser told The Seattle Times. He said Clemmons demonstrated an “obvious propensity for future violence.”

“He was a mean SOB,” Prosecutor Larry Jegley said, noting that Clemmons had numerous disciplinary write-ups while serving time. “He had battery, he had an assault, he had sexual offenses. He wasn’t a good prisoner.”

Released early in 2000 thanks to a commutation by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, Clemmons was re-imprisoned and re-paroled (again over prosecutors’ objections) by 2004. He sought greener pastures in Washington state, where officials had the good sense to classify him as a “high risk” for re-offending.

But that classification wound up being meaningless. Clemmons gave Washington a good look at his violent side back in May when he racked up eight felony charges, including assault of a police officer and second-degree child-rape.

During his booking, a recalcitrant Clemmons reportedly spewed a prophetic threat at the deputies.

“I’m gonna kill all you bitches,” he was quoted as saying.

In an elementary school, that remark would have ignited a zero-tolerance disciplinary response. But when made by a violent felon, it’s not even enough to get bail denied.

Both states are now finger-pointing over technicalities when this experience should be a stimulus for some transformative thinking about how we view and deal with violent criminals.

The defects in the criminal justice system that allow a demonstrably violent and vengeful miscreant like Clemmons to roam free run far deeper than mere policy tweaks. They are the result of decades of wrong-headedness about crime, punishment and rehabilitation.

We’ve yet to return to a philosophical consensus that some criminals are so vicious and malicious that they cannot be rehabilitated. In earlier times, ridding society of such immutable offenders was roundly acknowledged to be a good thing.

The United States is frequently criticized for locking up more people than other civilized countries. The glossedover fact is that we have more violent crimes than other civilized countries.Recidivism rates remain extremely high for violent criminals, but our parole system ignores that dynamic. The cost of a second chance is simply too high for criminals who are violent enough to hurt or kill other people. The government shouldn’t grant mercy to criminals at innocents’ expense.

It’s time to have two sets of sentencing guidelines, one for violent criminals that doesn’t include parole and another for non-violent offenders that’s full of second chances.

It’s also time to have two sets of prisons, one designed to weaken violent inmates’ ability to re-offend and another tailored to facilitate non-violent offenders’ successful return to society.

The goal of incarceration for violent criminals should be to separate them from society. Build their prisons in remote and inhospitable places, such as the shriveling cold of the Alaskan tundra, making escape difficult and survival after escape unlikely.

Clemmons made headlines because of the high-profile massacre. Hundreds of thousands of other parolees who only batter or rob or rape escape the media spotlight; consequently, there’s no real national tally of the cost of our violent crimes. The multitude of victims and their families harmed by released criminals suffer in relative solitude. Were any foreign nation to prey so mercilessly on our citizenry, we’d be at full-scale war in an instant.

It’s time for national awareness that releasing a violent criminal is akin to sentencing an innocent person to injury or death, and for national action to take violent criminals off the streets.

With limited prison resources, we should abandon the “war on drugs” (or other nonviolent infractions) and declare a real war on violent criminals, the kind in which the enemy suffers more casualties than we do.

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