Tuesday, September 30, 2014

From tragedy to travesty

By now you've almost certainly heard the story.  In the afternoon of Thursday, September 25, Beverly Carter, a real estate agent, telephoned her husband to inform him that she was going to show a house to a prospective buyer at an address near Scott in rural Pulaski County.  By 9:30 that evening, when she had not returned or called, her husband went to the address, where he found her car in the driveway, the front door open, and her purse inside, undisturbed.

As the frightening scenario played out, and word got out on social media about her disappearance and probable kidnapping, the community pitched in to help find her.  By Saturday morning, I saw flyers posted in area stores across Pulaski County.  Volunteers searched various areas where she might be taken.  And the police took fingerprints from the scene, which led them to name Arron Lewis, a convicted felon, a "person of interest" in Carter's disappearance. 

Lewis was involved in a one-vehicle car accident on Sunday and transported to an area hospital, but he left before an arrest warrant could be issued.  Yesterday, after a tip from a citizen who doggedly pursued Lewis at some personal risk, Lewis was arrested.  And early this morning, police announced that they had located Carter's body in a shallow grave near a business where Lewis had once worked.

Lewis has admitted to targeting Carter, but denies killing her--a denial that seems far-fetched.

For Carter's family and friends, this is an enormous, heart-breaking tragedy.  For the rest of us, the story of Beverly Carter's abduction and murder is a cautionary tale.  We live in a world with ever-present risks.  While this kind of thing is fortunately very rare, it is not non-existent.

But for one tone-deaf politician, this tragedy is an opportunity.  State Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) posted the following statement to Facebook:

As we mourn with the Carter family, let us also take positive action.  I don't think Arkansas even needs a parole board anymore.  Let these criminals serve every year, day, hour and minute of the sentences they have been given.  Don't even discuss turning them loose in Arkansas until their crimes against humanity have been FULLY served.  I am sick and tired as a citizen, husband, father and state senator of hearing story after story of criminals that have been turned loose by the parole board who then prey upon innocent Arkansans.  Let Arkansas become the toughest state in America for someone to commit a crime and serve their time - perhaps then these devils will get the message and think twice before committing such heinous acts against humanity.  I will be offering legislation to stop this insanity next session.  You can count on it.
Rapert apparently removed that statement and replaced it with the following:

My condolences to the Carter family on their loss.

How many more tragedies and unnecessary crimes are the Arkansas people going to have to endure until the Arkansas Parole Board realizes that we don't want these criminals turned loose in the streets of Arkansas anymore? I am sick and tired of criminals being turned loose to prey upon our women and children in Arkansas. I frankly don't care what it takes, but we MUST STOP TURNING THESE CRIMINALS OUT OF PRISON BEFORE THEY HAVE SERVED EVERY DAY, HOUR AND MINUTE OF THEIR SENTENCE! ACT 570 HAS BEEN A DISASTER AND THIS MUST STOP. 
It has been reported, and I repeated above, that Arron Lewis is a convicted felon, and it's true.  It's also true that Lewis was on parole at the time he committed this crime.

So, what crime was Lewis on parole for?

Turns out he had been convicted of "felony theft of property" and "felony accomplice to theft of property."  That means that Lewis stole property with a total value of at least $1,000.  That's a serious crime, to be sure, but it is not a violent crime.  In fact, there is nothing in Lewis's criminal history that would suggest he had ever committed a violent crime at all.

Since Lewis was on active parole, meaning that he had not completed his sentence, I suppose it's literally true that he would not have killed Beverly Carter if Arkansas had no parole.  But Rapert's simple-minded solution to the problem--like most of his political "solutions"--ignores the problem's complexity.

These are the facts:
  • Arkansas's prison system, despite significant increases in capacity over the last couple of decades, is bursting at the seams.  There are not enough beds to house anywhere close to all of the people serving active sentences.*
  • It is incredibly expensive to build new prisons.
  • Even if you could build new prisons, it is incredibly expensive to house and feed prison inmates.
  • Political pressure to lengthen sentences has forced more inmates into the prison system.
 * - I know whereof I speak.  I have a cousin who is a long-term alcoholic and drug addict who has committed numerous petty crimes either in support of his habits or because of them.  Treatment has proven ineffective for him in the long term.  He was better off in prison when he was serving an active sentence, and he--and the rest of us--would probably be better off if he were there now.  But there is simply no room for him.

 And none of that reaches the impact of imprisonment on the lives of people who do go to prison.  Most people who commit felonies have extreme difficulty obtaining post-sentence employment--a major factor in recidivism.  People will do what is necessary to feed themselves.

The purpose of parole isn't to "turn criminals loose."  Parole is an incentive for good behavior while serving an active sentence.  It's also an incentive to use active imprisonment as an opportunity to obtain education, job training, psychological counseling, and other services that help inmates become productive citizens upon their release.  Perhaps most importantly, parole provides relief to the prison system by establishing an intermediate step between active imprisonment and outright release; parolees are subject to periodic monitoring, and if they commit crimes while on parole, they can be sent back to prison immediately to serve our their sentences, on top of a new sentence for the new crime if convicted.  Parole is far less expensive than active imprisonment, and it allows the prison system to prioritize inmates according to the danger they pose to others.

Simply put, there was no indication that Arron Lewis posed a danger to anyone until this past weekend.  To indict the parole system for any role in his crime is, at best, misplaced anger, and at worst, political opportunism.

Of course, it's not like we should expect more from Rapert.  Asking his opinion on legal matters is like asking your accountant for an opinion about surgery. After all, this is the constitutional non-scholar who suggested, apparently seriously, that the vote on a statewide referendum should outweigh a provision in the federal Constitution.

But this kind of politically opportunistic, ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction demonstrates why the people of Faulkner County need to retire Sen. Rapert.  We don't need his brand of radicalism anywhere near the Arkansas Legislature.

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