« Republic of Legal Letters | Main | "Legally Binding" versus "Politically Binding" Climate Deal »

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Haunted by Recidivists: Double Homicide in Berkeley Linked to Oakland Parolee

Virtually everyone who studies prison agrees that states currently incarcerate too many people, too indiscriminately, and generally for too long.  California is the poster child for this problem, with huge budget deficits and federal court orders to both reduce its prison population and improve the quality of medical care in its prisons.  But just when the fiscal and legal problems of the state seem to open the policy window for a discussion of reforming the system, a series of crimes come to public attention that remind everyone of the chief boogeyman that has haunted American justice at least since the end of the 19th century, the violent criminal who keeps coming out of prison and committing more crimes.

Over the summer there was the arrest of sex offender Philip Garrido, who had kept kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard for 19 years in his Antioch home despite being on parole and registered as a sex offender (read Maura Dolan's coverage of the case in the LATimes).  Last month a Cleveland man with record of rape convictions was found in his home along with the corpses of some ten victims (WKYC.Com's coverage).  Now comes Curtis Martin III (38), charged in Alameda County Superior Court yesterday with two counts of murder and special circumstances (making him eligible for the death penalty) for the murder of a 23 year old woman and her 17 month old son, Martin went to prison back in the 1990s for killing the three year old son of his girlfriend  (read Henry Lee's coverage in the SFChron).  To the casual reader all of these stories suggest men who received remarkably light sentences for past serious crimes (Martin served six years on an eleven year sentence for manslaughter; Garrido did less than ten on a federal kidnapping conviction), and who emerged from prison ready and willing to commit similar or worst crimes.  If a lot of offenders are like Garrido and Martin, mass incarceration might seem a very sensible strategy indeed.  The result may well be renewed calls for longer sentences, despite the obvious prison crisis we are having.

The public is less likely to notice several features of all of these cases.  First, the seemingly lenient sentences that all three men received reflect sentencing laws from decades ago and in Martin's case, apparent proof problems that led to a manslaughter rather than murder charge.  Two of the three were on parole supervision but undeterred from continuing to commit crimes.  Finally, in all three cases, the suspects were detected by good police work (sometimes after repeated failures by other police agencies). 

The last thing we need is a spate of longer sentences targetted generically at whole categories of offenders.  Mass incarceration creates the conditions under which willful offenders like all three of these recent cases can operate with impunity, their violent crimes largely hidden amidst the blizzard of minor violations that dominate parole supervision.  It also creates conditions under which young women like Zoelina Williams (23), whose body was found in Aquatic Park here in Berkeley (where my kids often play) get involved with older losers like Curtis Martin (see the forthcoming article by my collegues, Stephen Raphael and Rucker Howard on the effects of incarceration on AIDS infection rates). 

The silver lining in all these cases is what they reveal about the effectiveness of good police work.  In the Garrido case, a UC Berkeley police officer, maintaining public observance of a widely used public forum (Sather Gate), noticed the aberrant appearance and behavior of Garrido's daughters (with his kidnap victim).  Curtis Martin was caught because an officer of the Berkeley police department ran into him on foot patrol in Acquatic Park, and noted down his name and license plate, facts that led to his arrest less than eight hours after the body was discovered.  As my colleague Justin McCrary has shown, public spending on prisons has outstripped police by an overwhelming amount since the 1970s (400 percent increase of prisons, more like 20 percent for police).

Posted by Jonathan Simon on November 18, 2009 at 11:18 AM in Jonathan Simon | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Haunted by Recidivists: Double Homicide in Berkeley Linked to Oakland Parolee:


The comments to this entry are closed.