Tuesday, December 24, 2013

What's wrong with this picture?

Dana Brock of Hurst, Texas was sentenced to 70 years in prison last week for stealing a weed whacker and a power washer from a neighbor's garage. This is what happens when enhancement provisions in the penal code are allowed to run wild like kudzu in the Mississippi countryside.

She was charged with burglary of a habitation, a second degree felony punishable by 2 to 20 years in the state penitentiary. But, because of prior convictions for murder, drug possession and solicitation, she was subject to Texas' "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws.

As a result, a crime that would normally have a ceiling of 20 years in prison could now net her life behind bars.

Now whether she should have served more time in Arizona on the murder and solicitation convictions is another topic for another day. The point is those convictions had nothing to do with the burglary case in Texas. Sure, her record indicates that she isn't a good person and certainly someone you wouldn't want to live next door to, but, we don't (or at least we aren't supposed to) punish folks because they're bad people or because of what they've done in the past.

In reality, however, that's exactly what we do. We enhance penalties based on what someone's done in the past - regardless of how much time has passed or how that person has changed. When prosecutors tack on enhancement paragraphs in an information or an indictment they are doing it because they want the jury to know what a bad person the defendant is.

Moreover, when the state seeks to enhance a charge with one or more prior convictions the state is seeking to punish the defendant a second time for a prior offense. When a defendant has a prior conviction, he or she has already been punished for it - whether it be probation or incarceration. That debt has already been paid. Yet somehow we've decided, and the courts have agreed, that it's okay to sentence someone twice for the same offense.

On multiple occasions I have represented defendants who were charged with felonies for what nothing more than a misdemeanor. One client had been indicted on felony theft charges for stealing soap, deodorant and shampoo. The value of the items stolen was well under $500 (a class B misdemeanor) but, because he had two prior misdemeanor theft convictions he was facing two-to-ten years in prison for something that would ordinarily be punished by no more than six months in the county jail.

And what's the point? Why are we sending people to prison for non-violent property crime offenses? A petty shoplifter has no business being exposed to the cesspool that is our prison system.We're doing it for no other reason than we're mad at him for continuing to steal.

Prison should be reserved for those folks who are a danger to society. Prison shouldn't be the landing spot for someone we're just mad at.

Now we can argue all day about whether Ms. Brock should go to prison for up to 20 years for stealing lawn equipment from her neighbor. But I would hope that we could agree that a life sentence for breaking into a garage is more than a bit excessive. She wasn't sentenced for the crime she committed. She was sentenced for other crimes she committed - and for which she served her time.

H/T Grits for Breakfast.

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