Many of us have followed, in horror, the story of Beverly Carter, the real estate agent was has been missing since last week and was found dead this morning. On social media, Sen. Jason Rapert reacted to the news of her death:
If Arron Lewis did what he is alleged to have done, he should go to prison for the rest of his life. Lewis was on active parole, and has a criminal history that includes multiple theft charges. His criminal history, however, was non-violent. If we eliminate parole for non-violent offenders it will bankrupt the state, not to mention almost certainly make problems worse, not better. The research is clear that a “tough on crime” approach that relies on over-incarceration and increases barriers to re-entry into society (remember, Rapert suggests eliminating the parole system altogether) will be counter-productive and increase recidivism, not safety. What is Rapert’s suggestion for someone like Lewis who had been found guilty of a non-violent crime? If Lewis had served his full sentence, does Rapert think he would have been less likely to do something awful once he got out? So what’s the solution? Lock anyone found guilty of a crime up forever? Who needs a parole board? Perhaps we should build a giant gated prison island somewhere and throw the key in the Arkansas River.
Rapert is a leader in the community, and it is precisely at times of horrific tragedy that we turn to our leaders for sober judgment. Rapert suggests action, and I’m sure his proposals could find some populist support, particularly in the wake of tragedy. But would a dramatic increase in sentencing and incarceration, including for non-violent offenders — and the elimination of parole in Arkansas — make us safer?
Seeking to do everything in our power to construct public policy that curtails crime and protects citizens is of course vitally important. Indeed, keeping folks safe is a foundational mission of having a government — of having a society — in the first place. Awful tragedies happen, in Arkansas, and the rest of the nation. Events like these rightly shake us. They rightly force us to examine our policy choices. But to conclude that the panacea is locking up more people, and locking them up for longer periods of time, strains credulity. No country on the planet, save the special case of the tiny island nation of Seychelles*, incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. Not Cuba, not Iran, not Russia, not Libya. Despite making up just 5 percent of the world’s population, a quarter of the world’s prisoners are here. It’s easy to say, of a given crime — if only the perpetrator had been in prison, this wouldn’t have happened. But where does that logic end?
Rapert was kind enough to take some time to chat with me by phone about his comments.
“When I say that, it’s out of frustration with seeing people dying on our streets as a result of people that’s been let out of prison,” he said. “I believe that most people in Arkansas given an opportunity to vote would say that criminals should serve every day, every hour, and every minute of the time that they’ve been sentenced to serve for a crime.”
Rapert said that he was considering routes that would reform the parole system as opposed to eliminating it altogether. “One option that I’m going to look at is perhaps if we had people on the parole board that have either been a victim of a crime, or they have had a family member who has been a victim of a crime, they wouldn’t be so quick to turn people loose back on the streets in the state of Arkansas,” he said. “There is more than one way for me to strengthen that situation.”
Rapert acknowledged that Lewis’s criminal past was non-violent but noted that he was a repeat offender. “He’s a repeat offender and he was not serving the full amount of time he had been sentenced to, he was on parole,” Rapert said. “The bottom line is if he had been in prison serving out his time, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“I don’t know how many stories you’re going to have to hear before you realize, you’re going to have to keep some of these people in prison,” he said. “We’ve had multiple cases in Arkansas where people have been let out of our prisons and then committed heinous acts. We have to stop this. … Repeat offenders are showing you that they don’t care. … We must have punishment that deters people from acting badly.”
To Rapert’s credit, he made a distinction (an important one!) for non-violent drug crimes: “It’s a different matter to talk about people getting arrested for drug crimes. That’s a different conversation altogether. … When it comes to people that have addictions, we want to get them treated, we want to help them be better.”
You can see more of Rapert’s thoughts on his Facebook page.
Rapert said that if you asked the Carter family today if criminals should serve every single day of a sentence without parole, “I guarantee you they would say yes.” That’s probably true. Indeed, if any of us could go back in time and put the perpetrators of the murder of Beverly Carter in prison, we would do so. That doesn’t solve the much thornier question of how our criminal justice system should deal with non-violent offenders — almost none of whom will turn into monsters — and help them transition back into society. Rapert may well be right that a popular vote would abolish parole, particularly since felons are stripped of their right to vote in this country. There is no easier issue to demagogue than crime, because — understandably — when things like this happen, citizens feel vulnerable and afraid. People also have intuitive notions about deterrence not borne out by the evidence. It would be nice if we could eradicate violent crime simply by being tougher about incarceration. The evidence suggests the opposite. Eliminating parole in the particular case of Arron Lewis might have stopped this from happening (though unless we’re giving life sentences for repeat offenses of theft, it might only have delayed something awful from happening once he was released). Eliminating parole (or ratcheting up sentencing) for everyone won’t stop violent crime, but will carry other unintended negative consequences. This country is one big experiment on the efficacy of over-incarceration. The experiment has failed.
Rapert and I agreed to disagree on the best approach for tackling criminal justice and incarceration in Arkansas. One question lingers though. If we go Rapert’s route, how will we pay for it?
*Seychelles, a 155-island archipelago in the Indian Ocean, is an interesting case. They incarcerate 868 people per 100,000, the only nation higher than the U.S. (707 per 100,000). But the total population of Seychelles is less than 100,000, meaning the total number of people incarcerated is around 800. The United States has more than 2.2 million incarcerated. So why are so many people in jail in Seychelles? Well, it’s the site of UN-funded courts which target Somali pirates. In other words, the U.S. incarceration rate would make more sense if we were an island nation serving as the world’s prison for pirates on the high seas. Not included in the ranking is North Korea, which the International Centre for Prison Studies is unable to track, though the possibility that perhaps North Korea imprisons more of its population than the U.S. is rather cold comfort.