Teen’s life sen­tence in of­fi­cer’s death raises ques­tions about prison’s pur­pose

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND - Dan Ro­dricks

No one should have been sur­prised that a judge in Bal­ti­more

County gave a 17-year-old boy a life sen­tence for killing a po­lice of­fi­cer last year in Perry Hall. Dawnta Har­ris drove a stolen Jeep Wran­gler into and over Of­fi­cer Amy Caprio when she drew her gun and or­dered him to stop. She was 29 years old and mar­ried. If you’re the judge in that case, con­sid­er­ing all the ev­i­dence and the pre-sen­tence plead­ings, and con­sid­er­ing that the vic­tim was a po­lice of­fi­cer, you prob­a­bly would have done the same.

“It wasn’t un­ex­pected,” de­fense at­tor­ney War­ren Brown said out­side the court­house. “The judge was un­der a lot of pres­sure.”

Based on the cir­cum­stances, it’s hard to imag­ine any Mary­land judge giv­ing Har­ris any­thing but the stiffest pos­si­ble sen­tence. You might have qualms about it — you might think, as I do, that no teenager should get a life sen­tence — but you’re not shocked that it hap­pened. Af­ter all, there is plenty of prece­dent for it. We have tried and sen­tenced ju­ve­niles as adults for ma­jor crimes for years. The Supreme Court has found the death penalty and life with­out pa­role un­con­sti­tu­tional when ap­plied to ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers, but those rul­ings are rel­a­tively re­cent.

So, in light of our cur­rent sys­tem and so­ci­etal stan­dards, there’s lit­tle point in ar­gu­ing against Judge Jan Mar­shall Alexan­der’s sen­tence of Dawnta Har­ris.

And yet this tragedy brings back to mind large ques­tions about how we do things in the cause of crim­i­nal jus­tice in the 21st Cen­tury: Is the sin­gu­lar pur­pose of prison to pun­ish, or should the point be to change lives, es­pe­cially young ones? Are we re­ally ready to say that a 17-year-old boy is a lost cause, or do we want a sys­tem that finds in him the po­ten­tial to be a bet­ter man? Would we be bet­ter off with a prison sys­tem that was more mer­ci­ful and ther­a­peu­tic?

I don’t ex­pect a vic­tim or the rel­a­tives of a vic­tim to be in­ter­ested in these ques­tions. It’s un­der­stand­able if harsh pun­ish­ment alone is what they see as jus­tice. But those who can pon­der these ques­tions with­out emo­tion should ask: What now for Dawnta Har­ris?

Do we want a sys­tem that sim­ply locks him away un­til he is 35 or 40 years old, when he might be el­i­gi­ble for pa­role, or a sys­tem in­tensely ded­i­cated to get­ting him ready for a suc­cess­ful re­turn to so­ci­ety? Should his el­i­gi­bil­ity for pa­role be based on some ar­bi­trary time frame — 15 years? 20 years? 30 years? — or should it be based on Har­ris’ emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal progress and the judge­ment of the Mary­land Pa­role Com­mis­sion? And should the gover­nor, a politi­cian, have the power to re­ject a lifer’s pa­role, as he does now?

Mary­land has made sig­nif­i­cant re­forms in correction­s since pas­sage of the Jus­tice Rein­vest­ment Act in 2016. Our prison pop­u­la­tion has fallen, and so has our re­cidi­vism rate — that is, the num­ber of of­fend­ers who re­turn to prison within three years af­ter their re­lease. The most re­cent data show that Mary­land’s rate has dropped to close to 40 per­cent. Na­tion­ally, how­ever, the re­cidi­vism rate for state pris­ons has been closer to 80 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Jus­tice. That’s ter­ri­ble.

Re­cidi­vism should be the pri­mary mea­sure of any cor­rec­tional sys­tem. To have nearly eight out of 10 in­mates com­mit­ting new crimes within three years means the sys­tem in most states does not work. Tax­pay­ers are not get­ting much bang for their bucks. We have pri­mar­ily the same sys­tem we have had for the last cou­ple of cen­turies — pris­ons for con­fine­ment and only lim­ited ac­tiv­i­ties (skills train­ing, high school and maybe college classes) that could be said to pre­pare in­mates for re­lease.

If you ac­cept that re­cidi­vism rates should be how we mea­sure a sys­tem’s ef­fec­tive­ness, then it fol­lows that pris­ons should be about chang­ing lives. And that means adopt­ing a more holis­tic and hu­mane ap­proach — mak­ing de­tailed as­sess­ments of all in­mates and pro­vid­ing what­ever ser­vices they need, over the course of their sen­tence, so that they leave bet­ter than when they ar­rived.

It’s even more crit­i­cal that we do this with greater ur­gency and dili­gence at the ju­ve­nile level, as the case of Dawnta Har­ris and the death of Of­fi­cer Caprio demon­strates.

In one of his films, “Where To In­vade Next”(2015), Michael Moore vis­its in­sti­tu­tions in Nor­way that seem more like ho­tels than pris­ons. Rapists, killers, robbers and drug ad­dicts live in com­fort­able con­di­tions while they learn to be “good neigh­bors.” The pun­ish­ment is the de­pri­va­tion of free­dom; the main pur­pose of the sys­tem is ther­a­peu­tic, to main­tain or im­prove Nor­way’s stel­lar re­cidi­vism rate of just 20 per­cent.

Moore tells the war­den, Tom Eber­hardt, that Amer­i­cans would find such pris­ons hard to ac­cept. “I don’t un­der­stand why you think this is a strange idea,” Eber­hardt says. “This is an Amer­i­can idea. Your found­ing fa­thers put in your Con­sti­tu­tion no ‘cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment.’ You wrote that.”

But a lot of Amer­i­cans still hold that the con­fine­ment in prison cells be­hind stone walls is nei­ther cruel nor un­usual. Un­til pub­lic at­ti­tudes change, un­til the po­lit­i­cal class rec­og­nizes that the cur­rent sys­tem is still largely a re­volv­ing door, we won’t see the bet­ter re­sult — a large ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who come out of prison bet­ter than they went in, and fully pre­pared for free­dom. We have to de­cide if that’s what we want, then build a new sys­tem where re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is at least as im­por­tant as pun­ish­ment, es­pe­cially for the young.


Amy Caprio’s fa­ther, Garry Sor­rells, talks to the me­dia af­ter a jury found 17-year-old Dawnta Har­ris guilty of mur­der in Caprio’s death last year.

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