Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Crime

Is the Recession Hitting Felons Too Hard?

When a recession hits, we all focus on the government policies that are most immediate to the economic downturn: unemployment, income, taxes, debt, etc.  But in the “never waste a crisis” vein, it appears Wisconsin Democrats are trying to parlay the recession into a major change in the way we deal with those who have committed crimes.

The most obvious example to date is Governor Jim Doyle’s plan to save the state money by granting early release to up to 3,500 “nonviolent” offenders in state prisons.  Somehow, in a budget that Doyle claims “cuts” $5.9 billion, he was able to spend $500 million more on K-12 education to pacify the teachers’ unions, while reducing prison spending by $20 million.  Perhaps the citizens of Wisconsin should form the “Association of People Who Don’t Like Being Stabbed in the Head,” give Doyle some campaign cash, and he might change his mind about letting criminals back on the streets early.  Of course, these offenders will be hitting the streets at the very same time unemployment in Wisconsin has exceeded 8.5%, meaning they’re not exactly going to rush back to lives of productivity.

But legislative Democrats have an answer – they have begun circulating a bill they’ve dubbed the “Job Opportunity Tax Credit” that they boast gives businesses tax credits to hire certain people – veterans, poor high school students, ex-felons, people in vocational rehabilitation programs…

Oh, did I skip over that one too quickly?  I’ll say it again.

 EX-FELONS.

You read that right –  their proposal would actually give a business a tax credit for hiring an ex-felon.  Naturally, this gives the business a financial incentive to hire criminals over people who, say, may have managed to avoid molesting children or gunning someone down in the street.  (I believe the bill exempts killing someone softly with love songs.)

Of course, we should encourage people who have served their time to make a living.  Ex-cons (and even current-cons) are already protected by state law against employment discrimination for past arrest or conviction record, which gives them a decent chance at getting a job with employers who are fearful of a lawsuit if they don’t hire them.  If they emerge from prison and can’t find meaningful employment, society is asking for a world of hurt.

But actually giving criminals preference for jobs simply goes too far.  The world is officially upside down when someone can live on the straight-and-narrow their entire life, then lose out on a job opportunity specifically because someone else couldn’t.  (Note to self:  During my next job interview, I should actually jump over the desk and dump battery acid on the boss- then explain to his charred skeleton he should hire me because he’s now eligible for a tax credit.  Everyone wins!)

Side note: How do you think veterans feel about being lumped in with ex-felons?  If you hire an ex-con who is also a veteran, do you have to immediately have to make him the CEO of your company?

Showing that they also have a sense of humor, legislative Dems have also begun circulating a bill draft (LRB-0910) that would impose a one-year prison sentence on any legislator that engages in lobbying within one year of leaving office. The bill is an attempt to convince the public that legislators no longer in “the club” are the cause of corruption in our state – not the current legislators who agree to be corrupted by lobbyists.  As if everyone will forget who a representative is a full year after they leave office.  Maybe we should erase their pictures from all the old Blue Books just to be safe. 

So, apparently, our prisons are so overcrowded, we have to let 3,500 offenders out, but we have plenty of room for “violent” offenders like lawmakers who get a job lobbying after they quit. 

Here are some crimes considered to be “nonviolent” by the state:

  • Possession of explosives 
  • Burglary 
  • Incest 
  • Causing mental harm to a child 
  • Manufacture, distribution or delivery of drugs 
  • Theft

So all you guys in the “incest” line – you can all go free.  You legislators over there – you can take their cells.

Obviously, the recession hits everyone hard (except for, of course, state government, which will continue to grow.)  But using the financial crisis to socially engineer changes that benefit those who have harmed others isn’t the “stimulus” we need.

The Wood Paradox

It has been a month and two days since State Representative Jeff Wood was arrested for drunk driving and possession of marijuana.  Just yesterday, he was officially charged with his 3rd OWI and the drug charges.  At the time of his arrest, I had a little fun at Wood’s expense, although I now admit I probably went a little overboard.

Needless to say, Wood picked the wrong time to get busted drinking and driving.  Newspapers across the state have declared a fatwa against drunk driving, publishing story after story in an attempt to get lawmakers to toughen up Wisconsin’s OWI laws.

But what’s most interesting to me isn’t necessarily the fact that Wood was finally charged – I’m more interested in why we still care about what he did.  It’s not like legislators driving drunk is a new phenomenon – one seems to get popped every couple of months.  Yet those cases disappear in the public’s consciousness within days.  (Except, most notably, in the case of the state’s top cop, former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.)

It’s not even as if Wood’s urinating on the side of the road is unprecedented.  Former State Assemblyman Frank Boyle famously ran his car into a concrete barrier and urinated in his pants before cops picked him up.  Boyle went on to be re-elected twice more by his constituents – a fate that currently seems out of Wood’s reach.

This brings us to what I’d call “The Wood Paradox,” which is this:  The reason Wood’s case is so titillating to the public happens to be due to the least dangerous and offensive thing he actually did.  I am referring, of course, to the charge of marijuana possession.

As I mentioned, elected official drunk driving arrests come and go, and usually elicit yawns.  But Wood’s became statewide news because he had marijuana – an illegal drug – on his person.  Suddenly, this arrest was outside of the mold we have set for elected official arrests, which made it exponentially more newsworthy.

But honestly, what’s really the most dangerous thing he did that night?  It was climbing into his car and trying to make a 4 hour drive home while drunk.  But somehow, that’s just boring to us now.  We need a little sizzle to our legislative arrests.

Which brings me, mercifully, to my main point.  Who really cares if a 39 year old guy has marijuana on him?  It impacts my life exactly zero percent if a guy decides to go home, smoke up, and watch reruns of The Jeffersons all night.  If you’re working the counter at a gas station all day, go ahead – what do I care? Dying of cancer?  I’ll buy you a bong. (Naturally, it would be an issue if Wood were high and driving around – but it appears in this instance, alcohol was the drug of choice.)

Normally, when people are compelled to write columns about marijuana use, they have strong opinions about whether the law should either be strengthened or weakened.  I, on the other hand, have a different perspective – I’d strenuously argue that the law is pretty much fine the way it is.  (When I eventually run for office, my signs will say “Vote Schneider for a stronger status quo!”)  It’s just tough enough to scare high school kids wanting to go to college away from trying it, but lenient enough that the people who really want to smoke up don’t really treat it like it’s illegal.  It really takes minimal effort to skirt the law.

Marijuana opponents would say that weed makes people stupid and lazy.  Perhaps this is true.  But in the event these people are already dumb, a good argument could be made that marijuana actually keeps them at home and out of my grocery lines.  And that could be a potential benefit.  A friend of mine warned that marijuana also makes people think they can play the guitar – and one day, a terrible, high guitar player might attempt to woo my daughter.  So, basically, this column could be ruining her life.

What Jeff Wood did was terrible.  The fact that he has now been pinched three times for it is even worse.  But the fact that he had marijuana on his person really means nothing.  It didn’t make a single person in this state either more or less safe – so we should stop feigning indignance at his newfound status as a drug offender.  We shouldn’t be saying “oooh, drugs!” instead of “you know… he really could have killed someone.”  Drunk driving should never be more socially acceptable than carrying around a dime bag.

A Blueprint for a New Wisconsin Drunk Driving Law

Lawmakers in Wisconsin now appear serious about getting tough on drunk driving in Wisconsin, following the death of 39 year-old Jennifer Bukosky, her unborn child and 10-year old daughter at the hands of three-time convicted drunk driver Mark Benson. Even Governor Jim Doyle has proposed making a third drunk driving offense a felony. Other lawmakers have proposed confiscating offenders\’ cars after a third offense, as well as sending drunk drivers directly to prison (Benson killed Bukosky and her children during a period before he was supposed to report to jail after his third conviction.)

When crafting a tougher new law, the sensible thing for legislators to do is to see what other states have done to crack down on drunk driving. The National Conference of State Legislatures has provided a chart that details every state\’s criminal drunk driving statute. When you look over the list, Wisconsin stands out in how light we are on drunk driving offenders. In the overwhelming majority of states, first non-accident offenses are at least a misdemeanor (although, admittedly, \”misdemeanor\” means different things in different states.) Exceptions from first-time misdemeanors include New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and New Hampshire – although subsequent offenses usually ratchet up the penalties in those states.

Generally, it is the third, fourth, and fifth offense (usually within a period of a few years) that moves the offense up to a felony in most states. Yet in Wisconsin, the first non-injury offense is a civil conviction. Injury-related DUI offenses constitute either a Class D or Class F felony. Second through fourth offenses are criminal misdemeanors that carry time in the county jail, with a fifth offense moving up to the felony level. (And, as we hear about at least once a year in Wisconsin, if you lose your license, you can always drive your tractor to the liquor store.)

For a full list of Wisconsin\’s criminal drunk driving penalties, click here.

(In addition to being a civil conviction, Wisconsin law is even lighter on drivers with blood alcohol content between .08 and .1. For a summary of the .08 law, click here.)

While higher criminal penalties are one way other states go after repeat drunk drivers, they aren\’t necessarily the only option.

25 states have opted for mandatory ignition interlock systems for some drunk drivers. Wisconsin is one of 20 states that allows ignition interlock devices to be installed \”at judicial discretion,\” which is weaker than some states that make the interlock devices mandatory in some or all cases. Several studies show drunk driving recidivism rates drop between 50 and 95 percent when ignition interlock devices are utilized. While some fear that these devices are too easy to circumvent (such as by having someone else blow into the tube for them), newer technology is arriving that makes that more difficult. For instance, some new devices include breath pulse codes, hum-tone recognition, and \”blow-and-suck patterns.\”

From the NCSL report on ignition interlock systems:

Four states have taken the lead on ignition interlocks by making them mandatory for all convicted drunk drivers, even first-time offenders. New Mexico was the first state, with a law passed in 2005, to require ignition interlocks for all offenders. The state has seen a 28 percent decline in alcohol-related fatalities since the new law went into effect.

Since then, three more states-Arizona, Illinois and Louisiana-have passed similar laws that mandate an ignition interlock for every convicted drunk driver. Oregon and Washington require ignition interlocks for all offenders who want to have their driving privileges reinstated. Colorado, Kansas and New Hampshire make them mandatory for repeat offenders and those convicted of so-called \”high BAC\” offenses. Sixteen states require them in some circumstances, while 20 states and the District of Columbia allow interlocks at the discretion of the courts.

Five states at some point have employed either special license plates for drunk drivers, or required a sticker be affixed to their license plate. The effectiveness of these programs seems to be mixed, as Oregon let their pilot program lapse without reauthorizing it, and Iowa repealed the law altogether. According to NCSL, five states considered new license plate laws in their 2008 sessions.

27 states have passed laws creating enhanced penalties for driving drunk with children in the car. (In 2003, one Louisiana woman was found passed out in her car with five children, ages 4 to 9, in the car with her.) 16 states have increased the penalties for refusing chemical blood alcohol tests.

A new Wisconsin law could employ any number of these strategies. But it must be done right, and it has to pass the common sense test to which it will undoubtedly be subjected to by the public.

Round Up the Males; Lying for Sex Now a Felony?

Quite often, well-intentioned legislation goes bad. Such a case exists in Massachusetts, where a well-meaning law meant to broaden the standard for rape has now turned into a national punchline.

Under the new legislation, it would be a felony to have sex with someone under false pretenses. In other words, you could go to jail for lying to someone in order to get them to have sex with you.

The bill states:

Whoever has sexual intercourse or unnatural sexual intercourse with a person having obtained that person\’s consent by the use of fraud, concealment or artifice, and who thereby intentionally deceived such person so that a reasonable person would not have consented but for the deception, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for life or any term of years. As used in this statute, \’fraud\’ or \’artifice\’ shall not be construed to mean a promise of future consideration.

The bill was meant to correct legitimate instances of deception such as the time a sleepy Massachusetts woman had sex with her boyfriend\’s brother, thinking it was actually her boyfriend. In another case, a medical technician pretending to be a doctor conducted a full pelvic exam on a woman after telling her he was licensed to give the exam. (Perhaps the fact that the \”doctor\” was eating a ham sandwich during the exam might have been a tip-off.)

But think about how broad this language actually is. Lying for sex? Is there really any other way? If women really knew what we were like, there\’d be no chance any male would get any action. Every guy has some bogus story about what a good job we have, how we spent time on a Greenpeace boat, how this is our real hair, or some such nonsense. Every man pads the resume a little, hoping to cash in before reality sets in. (Although saying the words \”I\’m a blogger\” might be the most effective birth control known to man.)

Even if there\’s not overt lying going on, there are implied lies. Suppose your girlfriend cheats on you with Roger Clemens. And suppose, had you known about the affair, you never would have slept with her again. But she doesn\’t tell you about the affair, and you continue to have your monthly sexual encounter. Your girlfriend could actually be guilty of rape, since she concealed information that would have kept you from having sex with her.

The list goes on. Tell a girl you will always love her? Get an orange jumpsuit. Cougar looking to score a younger guy at the bar tonight? Better be honest about your age, or you\’ll be making license plates soon, sweetie. Telling a man he\’s a great lover to keep the love train going? (Never a problem in my case, incidentally.) Get ready for the big house.  Tell a girl you work with she looks like Pam from \”The Office?\”  Well, no worries there, since she\’ll probably opt not to talk to you ever again.

(As long as we\’re handing out sentences, the words \”I can\’t wait to see the \’Sex and the City Movie\’ out of any guy\’s mouth should be punishable by death.)

In 1975, a man named Marty Evans was sued by a woman claiming he lied to get her in the sack, and it went all the way to the New York Supreme Court. In his decision in People v. Evans, Justice Edward Greenfield said:

“So bachelors, and other men on the make, fear not. It is still not illegal to feed a girl a line, to continue the attempt [to obtain sex], not to take no for a final answer, at least not the first time. . . . [A] male [will] make promises that will not be kept, . . . indulge in exaggeration and hyperbole, or to assure any trusting female that, as in the ancient fairy tale, the ugly frog is really the handsome prince.Every man is free under the law, to be a gentleman or a cad.\”

Of course, should this bill actually become law, there are fiscal implications, as well. For instance, it might be expensive to turn the State of Montana into a prison big enough to house the entire male population of the United States.  Then again, the entire human race may be eradicated within a decade due to the end of procreation.

(Via the Volokh Conspiracy.)

Two Tickets to Club Fed

Fundamental to society’s concept of “prison” is that it should generally be a place that people don’t want to go. The mere threat of going to prison is supposed to keep people from shooting, robbing, or plagiarizing you. (Or, God forbid, all three at once.)

For instance, I am afraid of going to prison. Part of it is because I am a sniveling ninny. Okay, all of it is. But so far, I have narrowly avoided killing anyone, and if I have, it tends to be softly and with love songs.

In fact, I’m not implying that prison is a pleasant experience for anyone. However, each year around 14,000 young men in Wisconsin decide that the threat of imprisonment isn’t an adequate deterrent to criminal behavior and end up behind bars. Maybe it’s because they just don’t think they’ll be caught. Maybe they’ve been to prison and are used to the lifestyle there. Maybe the last time they were in jail, they networked with other criminals that gave them a job running drugs when they were released.

Much like Corey Feldman’s acting, prison means different things to different people. Put yourself in the position of a good number of the men now sitting in the Wisconsin correctional system, and compare what they have now to the life they led outside of the joint.

Suppose I am a young male with problems. I have a crappy job that doesn’t pay me anything, and half of what I make goes to pay child support to my various children’s mothers. I’m six months behind in my rent, and I’m about to be thrown out on the street. I smoke weed every day, because it keeps me off drugs. My neighbor stole my television, so I can’t keep up with the latest technological advances in female de-humanism found in my favorite music videos. Even worse, I can’t watch “Facts of Life” reruns anymore.

Suddenly, the State of Wisconsin Correctional System comes to me with an opportunity. I get a free place to live, three meals a day, and I only have to work a few hours a week. My kids’ mothers aren’t harassing me at all hours of the night. Sure, they take all my prison job earnings for my child support, but I get cheap health care to take care of me. If I want, I can get help for my drinking problem – and it’s all paid for by the same rich people that were forcing me to drink so much in the first place.

Sure, there’s a significant downside to being locked away in prison. I like the ladies. I’ll probably end up married to a tattooed “child enthusiast,” but as long as I get to choose the wedding invitations, I’m good with that. Rumor has it that most of the people in the joint are criminals, so there’s a reasonable expectation that I could get my eyes stabbed out with a hair brush. But how, again, is that any different from the culture of violence in which I now live? (Plus, I can eat a lot of hard boiled eggs, which I assume will teach dudes not to mess with me.) There’s a small chance they could stick me with Steven Avery, which would be horribly offensive – I hear he doesn’t floss.

Thus, the decision isn’t as clear-cut as people think – prison could be a decent respite from the real world. The fact that I got to throw my landlord out a window to get myself in prison really is just icing on the cake. And when I get out, I’ll be treated like a hero returning from war – not like that nerdy cousin of mine who went to college. His inability to “keep it real” has caused more than a modicum of discord within my family.

On top of all this, I have all kinds of wimpy liberal groups arguing that prison is too hard. How great is that? Keep it up, fellas. In fact, if you can get me out of prison in time to launch my entirely plausible rap career, that would be great. Thanks.

Wisconsin actually has a history of making concessions to prisoners. We were the first state to abolish the death penalty, and to give prisoners time off for good behavior. In 1868, Wisconsin was even the first state to eliminate black and white striped prisoner uniforms. As a thank you for this kindness, criminals vowed to be more polite when they raped and murdered people for the next 140 years.

Unfortunately, our prisons are jammed with people willing to take the state up on their timeshare opportunity. Since 1987, the average daily prison population has grown by 277%. And if the state built more prisons, those will fill up, too. The state could convert Milwaukee’s Bradley Center into a penitentiary and it would be at capacity within a year – which is fitting, because watching the Bucks play often feels like incarceration.

Many people actually blame the growth in prison building with creating more prisoners – as if the prisons themselves increase crime. As the logic goes, more prisons means more prisoners, since prison actually comes to get you – it’s not something you earn. It’s as if the prisons are showing up at these poor, innocent young men’s doors disguised as insurance salesmen and snatching them from their homes.

There are myriad ways to reduce crime rates, including more aggressive policing on the front lines. On the back end, Wisconsin should examine ways to deter crime before it happens. We need to break the cycle of merely throwing criminals in prison – instead, the state should give lawbreakers a good reason not to choose the wrong path in the first place.

 

The Next Great Self Defense Debate

While the Wisconsin Legislature continues to struggle with allowing individuals to carry firearms to protect themselves, I think I\’ve found a middle ground.   There\’s no doubt that Democrats and Republicans alike can agree that we should let people carry concealed pitchforks.

From Madison:

Madison police responded to a call early Tuesday morning about a scuffle in which pitchforks and knives were drawn to stop vandals from ruining a tent near a fraternity on the 200 block of Lakelawn Plaza near Langdon Street.

Police said only threats were exchanged and no participants suffered injury. The report said an officer at the scene of the crime heard somebody say, \”I just had a pitchfork pulled on me.\”

This may be new to the people of Madison, but this is the type of violence rural communities been putting up with from rough farmer gangs for years.  Be thankful you haven\’t been the victim of a drive-by pitchforking.

911 is a Joke (For White People Now, Too)

Good Morning America broadcast a story the other day about how poor emergency services are getting around the U.S. They highlighted a dying student who waited almost an hour for an ambulance to arrive (although they concede he probably would have died anyway, due to a heart condition). Suburban areas are blaming high population growth for poorer emergency services.

While this may be news to white people, didn’t Flavor Flav have this covered about 15 years ago?

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