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The Label

May 7, 2012

 October 2, 2010

A Reform Essay

THE LABEL

By Davin Douma

             When I was a kid I used to watch the news to catch the perp walks outside the local court rooms.  I’d see guys in orange jumpsuits with the word PRISONER in bold black letters on the back.  It was a common sight I was familiar with that didn’t get old.  Sometimes the guy was on trial for murder, and sometimes rape.  It was the big offenses, the serious offenses that showed up on the evening perp walks.  The drug pushers and car thieves and burglars didn’t make the cut.  I didn’t think about it much at the time because I didn’t make a distinction between prisoners.  Criminals were just criminals and they all deserved to burn.  Twenty-seven years in the joint has changed my perspective a little, but maybe not in the way you might expect.

            The news stories today that surround criminals are different.  The perp walks outside the courtroom aren’t gone, but they are rare.  Most of the stories about prisoners these days deal with budget problems, tougher sentencing, and drug offenders.  Although the prison population in this state is relatively flat, the tax base in our economy has been declining.  There is less money available to imprison criminals and politicians are looking at ways to reduce costs.  One of the savings initiatives that pop up every year or so is a plan to give breaks to nonviolent criminals.  Our state statutes are dotted with little laws that give nonviolent prisoners more good time, shorter sentences, and access to special release programs.  Oklahoma has been playing the nonviolent labeling game for decades but the results haven’t panned out.  The prison population hasn’t declined at all.  Not once in the state’s history.  The system keeps looking at the nonviolent criminal but at some point we just have to declare the horse dead.

            Labeling someone as a nonviolent criminal is useless.  The distinction between violent and nonviolent is completely arbitrary.  Worse than arbitrary because it implies a reality and meaning that is false.  The way we as a society define nonviolent is by comparing it to violent, but the violent label is just as misleading.  What are the truths behind the labels and why do we use them if they’re so inaccurate?

            I understand that all humans have a pathological need to categorize.  We do it with apples, we do it with cars, we do it with entire nations.  It is our way to try and understand a thing by lumping it into a group, and them making general observations and assumptions about that group.  We say that a bass is a certain kind of fish, different from a perch, and it behaves in such and such a way.  After categorizing and analyzing we think we understand the bass, but in reality do we?  Only the bass knows the truth and it isn’t saying a word.

            Nonviolent offenders are people who haven’t yet been convicted of a violent offense.  Notice I used the word ‘convicted’ and not ‘committed’.  To commit a violent act is to become a violent offender, yet who in this world at some time or another hasn’t acted violently.  Ever been in a fight?  Ever made a threat?  How many times have you fantasized about a Mack truck running over the car that just cut you off on the freeway?  If you use the convicted nomenclature as the general distinction between violent and nonviolent, then everyone starts as a nonviolent offender.  And if everyone starts there, and the category includes us all, then the category makes no distinctions and is not a real category.  It is meaningless.

            The thing to keep in mind about criminal behavior is that it either increases in severity and or frequency, or it decreases.   Because of the upside-down and backwards world of prison culture, prisoners either become better or worse people, there is no staying the same.  Car thieves become burglars, burglars become robbers, and robbers become murderers.  This ladder of offenses starts at the low end of nonviolent behavior and works its way up.  For the violent offender the pattern is often the opposite.  Once a criminal has served a long sentence for a violent crime, say twenty years, he is done.  Although there are no absolutes when it comes to recidivism, some principals, like older cons laying down, are well establishes.  At the top of the ladder there are only two choices, stop climbing or go back down.  Both are improvements.  This little tidbit of prison knowledge is a good example of a counter-intuitive truth.

            Nonviolent offenders, generally speaking, are more likely to commit a violent offense than a violent offender.  The recidivism rates for nonviolent offenders are significantly higher than for violent offenders, and since criminals are moving up on the ladder of offenses it stands to reason that nonviolent offenders actually pose greater risks to society than do violent offenders.  This understanding has been around for a long time, but it isn’t acted on by people in the know.  Politicians don’t pass laws to release violent offenders because they have spent their political careers denouncing them.  It isn’t politically correct to release a convicted murderer or armed robber.  It doesn’t matter that the person might have served thirty years and statistically presents no meaningful threat to society.  The label of violent offender that has been stuck on the felon like a sticky-note is not removable and more akin to a tattoo.  Only the nonviolent offender, the gang banger with the three prior drug convictions and the pistol and the stolen car, is acceptable to release.

            When it comes to catching and prosecuting criminals, nonviolent offenders really put it to the taxpayers.  A nonviolent offender who commits five felonies before he commits a violent offense costs five times as much as a violent offender who commits one crime and serves the same time.  The nonviolent offender with five convictions who serves three years on each does fifteen years.  His cost of incarceration is the same as the violent offender who serves fifteen for one offense, but, the difference in cost comes from the repeated arrests, the repeated trials, the repeated processing, the repeated legal fees.  It is the repeats that cost.  Think of all the people it takes to run the justice system and all their salaries.  Their existence is based on repeat customers. 

            When it comes to managing prisoners and their costs, the nonviolent offender is the bane of the correctional system.  Visit your local prison and tour the segregation unit and you’ll see why.  Segregation units are where problem prisoners are kept.  It is a higher security, a higher level of supervision, and consequently, higher costs.  Segregation units are primarily filled with men serving sentences for nonviolent crimes.  It is the gang bangers, the drug addicts, the tattooed freaks that fill those beds.  Lifers in contrast, men serving time for homicides, rarely cause any problems and most will serve long sentences and never see the inside of a segregation unit.  The prisoners most likely to rob other prisoners, to assault other prisoners, to rape other prisoners, are nonviolent offenders.  Nonviolent offenders are younger, more aggressive, and less likely to change their ways regardless of what you do to them.  Chang comes with maturity, and does not correlate to sentence length.

            When one honestly compares the costs of violent and nonviolent offenders, social as well as monetary costs, the labels prove to be completely misleading.  In the end we just have to ask ourselves a simple question that is based on the premise that eventually everyone gets out of prison.  Who do you want living next door?  The man who served thirty years for a homicide and now is a productive member of society, or the nonviolent-drug-addict-gang-banger looking to score a few bucks for their next fix?  I think the answer is a no-brainer, but then I’m not running for political office.  In politics the truth is fluid, like tax dollars and social agendas.

copyright 2010 Davin Douma

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