Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Update: No Federal Hate Crime Charges; A Call For Reordering Our Judicial Priorities

The six monsters who kidnapped, imprisoned, raped, and tortured 20-year-old Megan Williams won't face federal hate crime charges. Nonetheless, given the perpetrators' voluminous police records, the quantity and seriousness of the state criminal charges, and the possibility that state hate crime charges will be filed subsequent to those, it's likely they'll face long prison sentences if convicted. The latest:

BIG CREEK, W.Va. (AP) — Authorities decided Wednesday not to pursue hate crime charges in the kidnapping and week-long torture of a black woman, instead going after the suspects, who are white, on state charges that carry stiffer penalties.

While federal civil rights or state hate crime charges remain an option, a state kidnapping count that carries a sentence of up to life in prison will provide the best chance for successful prosecution, officials said.

"As a practical matter, sentenced to life, what else can be done?" U.S. Attorney Charles T. Miller told The Associated Press.

Six people face charges, including kidnapping, sexual assault and lying to police in the torture of a 20-year-old woman at a remote hillside home in Big Creek.

State hate crime charges, which carry a sentence of 10 years, could come later, prosecutor Brian Abraham said. State sexual assault charges carry a penalty up to 35 years in prison.

I stand behind the spirit of hate crime legislation: that such acts are extraordinary in that they involve targeted racism, sexism, and even terrorism, and that they call for an extraordinary measure of punitive remedy. And it is my admittedly unsophisticated and unschooled opinion that charges for this class of crime--call it terrorist or hate, call it what you like--are warranted in many cases when the act is so heinous and so clearly directed at a specific group of citizens. That said, like many of the wise commenters at litbrit as well as at Shakesville, I worry that the term "hate crime" itself has become politically-charged, something that politicians can use to capture the attention (and, more cynically, the votes) of minorities, women, and gay folk; something to add an extra fillip of contemporary in-the-know to their stump speeches when the topic is "getting tough on crime"; and something that will sadly remain meaningless in terms of actually getting the violent monsters off the streets, in greater numbers, once said politicians are elected.

This heartbreaking, terrible case in West Virginia offers legal authorities--at both the state and federal levels--the chance to prove how serious they are about putting violent criminals behind bars and keeping them there. Since 1991, police have filed no fewer than 108 criminal charges against the six suspects involved; all were living as free persons when they kidnapped and raped Ms. Williams. The mother, Frankie Brewster, was charged with first-degree murder of an elderly woman in 1994; she pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter and was released from prison after only five years.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you release violent monsters from prison--or worse, fail to incarcerate them in the first place. They keep attacking; they keep raping; they keep murdering.

And you, the prosecutors we trust to put them behind bars? You keep entering into plea bargains because your jails are full and your dockets are full--we know. You've been really, really busy fighting the War on Drugs. There isn't enough time, there aren't enough courts, and there simply isn't much room left for storing all the truly dangerous Bad Guys (and their mothers):

According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, more than two million men and women are now behind bars in the United States.1 The country that holds itself out as the "land of freedom" incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country.[...] The exploding prison population has been propelled by public policy changes that have increased the use of prison sentences as well as the length of time served, e.g. through mandatory minimum sentencing, "three strikes" laws, and reductions in the availability of parole or early release.

Although these policies were championed as protecting the public from serious and violent offenders, they have instead yielded high rates of confinement of nonviolent offenders. Nearly three quarters of new admissions to state prison were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Only 49 percent of sentenced state inmates are held for violent offenses.

Perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national "war on drugs." The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980. In 2000, 22 percent of those in federal and state prisons were convicted on drug charges.

If given the choice between mandatory minimum sentences--sometimes life sentences--for drug users and dealers, and mandatory, equally draconian sentences for kidnappers, child molesters, rapists, and murderers, I know which group I'd want behind bars forever.

And I'm guessing there aren't many readers who'd choose otherwise.

Write to your lawmakers in the Senate and the House.

Also at Shakesville.

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