The vicious cycle of crime

UPDATE: The Baltimore Sun has an investigative piece on how and why prison inmates often get released early.

Last week, a Baltimore City police sergeant was sitting in his car, off duty and running errands near North Avenue and Bel Air Road on the city’s east side, when a man walked up.

The man shot the sergeant, Keith Mcneill, multiple times. On Sunday, 34-year-old Gregg Thomas turned himself in and was charged with the shooting.

We don’t know what spurred the incident. But here’s what we do know: 11 years ago, Gregg Thomas was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Yet he walked the streets as a free man in 2014.

How?

In Maryland, people convicted of violent crimes serve, on average, only 60 percent of their sentence. They get out in some cases on parole, in others for “good behavior” as part of a program called “mandatory supervision.”

That’s how Arthur Jeter was able to serve only about five years of an eight-year sentence for his role in the Patterson Park beating death of Zachary Sowers in 2007. Last fall, police said, he was found in possession of a .380-caliber handgun. A felon can’t legally have a gun, of course, and it was reported last week that Jeter is now facing a federal gun charge with up to a 10-year sentence. He’s 24 years old.

In the United States justice system, imprisonment serves two functions. Punishment is the obvious one, but there is another: rehabilitation. But in far too many cases, neither is being served.

And the numbers back this up. On the punishment side, there’s the fact that violent offenders serve only about 60 percent to 75 percent of their sentence. Nonviolent offenders, meanwhile, are freed after about half. This undercuts the very purpose of sentencing. What is the point of a handing down a prison term if such a large portion of it won’t apply?

On the rehabilitation side, the prison system also is failing. According to a study by the Pew Center on the States, about 43 percent of inmates let out of prison in 2004 were back behind bars by 2007. Go back five years and the percentage is very similar. Yet total spending by corrections departments has risen to about $52 billion, nearly double the $30 billion figure from a decade ago.

More than 2.4 million Americans are in prison. That’s a staggering number; the city of Chicago has a population of about 2.7 million. To put in perspective another way, more than one out of every 100 adults in the U.S. is incarcerated.

I’m not trying to scare anyone or say that everyone out there is a criminal. There are myriad ways to look at every issue, and plenty of data show that violent crime is decreasing in the U.S. For example, the murder rate is at its lowest rate since the early 1960s. (Talking Points Memo has an outstanding chart that takes a big-picture look at that.)

But that’s not the point. Whether crime is rising or falling, it will always exist, and the justice system must serve its purpose to be effective in deterring it. Currently, too many people are being cycled through prisons, let out early to make room for the next inmate and put back on the streets with even less of a chance at improving their lives than they had before.

That more than four in 10 would quickly return to a life of crime shouldn’t seem surprising. But that doesn’t mean we as a society have to accept it as a given. That’s not fair to anyone, and it’s especially not fair to people like Keith Mcneill.

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