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Saturday, 14 May 2011

When is a violent criminal not a violent criminal?

Possibly when they are serving time for a violent offence that was a one-off event.

This is a long blog post, because it is something I feel strongly about and which directly impacts us. I regularly read the BackGate website and blog for current news on TDCJ from the officer's perspective. I'm not one of those people who think all prison officers are the spawn of Satan; many officers try very hard to uphold professional standards of security and care in the face of increasing bureaucracy, unscrupulous colleagues, antagonistic inmates and inmate families who are not much better. Today on the BackGate, they have the results of a poll they have conducted, which makes interesting reading simply because the majority of voters are those who work for TDCJ.

The poll asks "Do you support the release of non-violent criminals from Texas prisons as a means of reducing prison overcrowding and saving money ?"To which the response has been:

Yes:  71 (68%)
No:   33 (31%)

Given the usual vitriol on the BackGate from members towards inmates and their families, this response is a surprise. More so, because releasing more inmates would necessarily mean TDCJ would be able to reduce their staff levels as well, so by suggesting this should happen the officers are talking themselves out of a job.

Normally, inmates are classified as either non-violent or violent by TDCJ (and many in the media use these terms as well). However, this is usually based on the crime the inmate has been found guilty of, and not necessarily the inmate's personality, normal demeanour, or behaviour while incarcerated. This can, and often does mean that individuals who are convicted of murder for example, a crime with a consistently low statistical rate of recidivism for the same crime upon release, can show no signs of violent behaviour while incarcerated and yet not be considered for parole until much later into their sentence than those who commit burglaries or drug offences (often multiple counts with a very high recidivism rate).

The media love to whip people up into a frenzy when talking about the release of "violent offenders", almost as much as whenever sex offenders are mentioned. They would have you believe that the moment these inmates step outside the prison gates, they will immediately seek to run riot through the local community raping, pillaging, and generally behaving as if the End of Days is upon us all.

What the media roundly fail to mention is that a significant number of inmates who are convicted of murder, rape and many other violent crimes are released into the community each week at the end of their sentences, and sometimes with a late parole. These individuals are usually never heard of again; if lucky they find somewhere to live and work, often with the help of family, friends or a local church, and exist quietly for the rest of their days with very few people knowing of their past. TDCJ releases around 70,000 inmates each year according to Scott Henson at the Grits for Breakfast blog. Few murderers and violent criminals receive LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) sentences in Texas and only a handful get the death penalty. Most will be released eventually, so why exclude those who have not shown violent tendencies during their incarceration, or in previous convictions, from consideration for parole at the same point of time-served as any other inmate?

In Texas, inmates do not get automatic parole. The decision is made by the Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP), who on average spend around 45 seconds (yes, seconds) on each file that they receive. It is no surprise that the majority of inmates are denied parole several times over, and often for things that they could not change even if they wanted to (nature of offence, and insufficient time served are two of the most common reasons given, yet neither of these can be altered by the inmate and the second one seems to directly ignore the laws of Texas which state that an inmate is eligible for parole consideration after serving 1/4 or 1/2 of their sentence depending on the type and date of conviction).

But as Texas does have the BPP, surely Texans could rely on them to not release inmates who have displayed violent behaviour while incarcerated - regardless of the crime they are serving time for?

Violent offenses almost always come with longer sentences. No one is suggesting that murderers should receive shorter sentences than someone who commits identity theft. But keeping these inmates in prison is expensive, and the longer you keep older inmates in prison the more expensive it becomes. Sure, let out those serving sentences for non-violent crimes, but that still leaves a sizable portion of inmates who are going to grow old and sick while in TDCJ and who will cost more to look after in the long run.

The alternative(s)? 
  • Set the first possibility of parole at 1/3 time for all inmates.
  • Make parole an affirmative action rather than assuming a negative outcome.
  • Take into account the actions of the inmate during the entirety of their incarceration (education, work record, behaviour, participation in programmes for behaviour modification etc)
  • Do not penalise inmates continually for things they cannot change
  • Look at the family and community support available
All of these things together could be used to create a more effective and successful parole system, with better communication between the BPP and the community. This could help offenders succeed in staying out of prison and costing the state less in the long run because they would be working and paying taxes like everyone else (and often, just like they were before their incarceration). Everyone wins.

It is at this point that many people ask "what about the victims?", usually followed by something like "Jane Doe never had a chance to do X, Y or Z so why should her killer?" I understand this sentiment. I also understand that there is no "closure" for the families left behind even if the inmate never gets out of prison. It is another media fallacy used to incite hatred from the mob towards an easy target. In many instances, the murder or other violent crime happens within a family. What if that family forgive the inmate and simply want them home again? Should their voices only be heard when they ask for punishment and not when asking for mercy too? 

You cannot live in the past. You can uphold the memory of a lost loved one positively by moving on and not continually wishing for vengeance. That simply makes a person bitter and unhappy, and is unlikely to be what the dead person would want. Those who become consumed by such passionate hatred of the offender can find themselves lonely and avoided - not because of what the offender has done but because of how they have reduced themselves to being what amounts to a full-time victim. Should they wish their own heartache onto the family of the inmate as well?

There are no easy answers to any of this. However, the fact remains that inmates of all types do have the capacity to re-enter society and be productive if given the opportunity. Parole gives a level of supervision that does not exist when inmates are forced to serve their entire sentence and are then thrown out onto the street with no support or guidance at all. That is why Florida's experiment with 100% sentencing failed, and why Texas must look to find positives in parole rather than admitting defeat and warehousing itself into bankruptcy.


  1. Passionate, well-informed and balanced: I hope this blog posts gets a wide exposure!

  2. What exactly is a non-violent offender? Is it someone who has never committed a violent crime? Is it someone convicted of a non-violent crime but with a history of violence? Is it someone who committed a violent crime but was convicted of a non-violent crime because of plea bargaining? The point is that sentencing statistics provide only a snapshot of the person’s current offense.

  3. Exactly my point, edbarb1. Using the classification by itself to determine any kind of parole eligibility is too polarised.


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