Vigilantism is alive and well in Washington’s criminal justice

Washington State Senator and Mason County Commissioner Tim Sheldon responded to funding cut to Mason County’s Sheriff’s office by stating that it’s “open season” on criminals, there’s “no bag limit,” and that criminals should expect a lead enema from citizens.

Sheldon’s statement has some emotional appeal. Too many people have been victims of violent crime.

Nevertheless, even aside from the fact that criminals also happen to be human beings guaranteed due process under the Constitution, I’d prefer for the professionals to handle the law enforcement in my community.

For one thing, I can imagine some neighbors — including myself — who should not be encouraged to wave guns around at times of high stress.

Law enforcement funds are being cut all over the state. King County Sheriff’s office reports that the preliminary King County budget for 2010 translates into a cut of nearly $8 million for them — the equivalent of 83 deputies.

Sheldon’s vigilantism is not only the wrong response to these cuts, but appears to be based on the kind of thinking that helped lead to these cuts.

The vigilante mindset is, first of all, emotional — ignoring evidence in favor of feeling.

Second, it elevates the immediate needs of the individual over the common good so that the desire to hurt a person who has just hurt us, for example, trumps the rule of law.

Third, it supposes that any citizen can do a better job than a trained and experienced professional who is dedicated to a code of professional ethics and sworn to uphold the public trust.

A brand of vigilantism is at work in the market deregulation that led to our current economic collapse.

People were given too much power to make decisions affecting other people’s homes, livelihoods and pensions as well as the global economy — without being held to adequate standards of professional judgment or public accountability.

A brand of vigilantism is at work in the well-funded and decades-long resistance to policy action on climate change.

That resistance has cost the insurance industry billions of dollars.

Radio talk show personalities and oil company executives — non-experts in climate science and with low accountability to the public — use emotional appeals to drown out the well-founded warnings of the scientists.

Vigilantism is alive and well in Washington criminal justice, where much of what we spend money on is driven by emotion.

“Three Strikes” is an example. It was passed by ballot initiative in 1993, after a well-funded and misleading advertising campaign by out-of-state special interests — and against the advice of a number of criminal justice professionals.

A common sense money-saving reform recommended by the Washington’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission back in 2001, the removal of lower-seriousness crimes from the Three Strikes list, has never been implemented.

Bills to implement these recommended reforms are introduced every year. At least three legislators who have sponsored them are law enforcement officers.

The bills always fail. Politicians will not or cannot heed the recommendations of experts because the label of soft-on-crime is used against them at election time.

A Three Strikes conviction carries a sentence of 777 years, 77 months and 77 days “without possibility of release.”

But the most common Three Strikes conviction, Robbery 2, is an unarmed, no-injury crime.

Along with Assault 2, another common Three Strikes crime, it’s classified at the same level of seriousness in our criminal code as “influencing the outcome of a sporting event.”

These are serious crimes deserving of punishment. But it makes us no safer to put people in prison for life to punish them. In fact, imposing the same punishment for Murder I as for wallet grabs stands deterrence on its head.

It’s no surprise that research indicates higher levels of homicides in urban areas with Three Strikes laws.

Under Three Strikes, we spend millions annually to house people past their standard maximum terms.

Because older people cost more to imprison and grab fewer wallets, we’re taking cops off the street — and teachers out of the classroom — to imprison people who pose a low public safety risk.

We’d get much better crime-fighting value by adequately funding law enforcement.

All brands of vigilantism give too much power where there is too little knowledge and public accountability.

We must find a way to mature beyond this emotional approach so that we can base our policies on the evidence of what works to keep us safe.

Noemie Maxwell writes for Washblog.com. Her guest opinion was reprinted from the Independent’s sister publication, the Federal Way Mirror.

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