Criminal Justice Reform, and Confronting Reality

By John F. Di Leo 

November 19, 2018 A.D. 

For the past few cycles, the Democratic Party has added what they call “criminal justice reform” to their campaign platforms, and President Donald Trump has recently joined the call, in part.

There is certainly no question that some people get stiffer sentences than most onlookers would expect them to receive.  Every state has different recommended or mandatory sentencing ranges, and different states have varying approaches for how much to take past convictions into account.

So it is that we look at the press reports of individual cases – often only the press reports, in a vacuum – and conclude, as Monday morning quarterbacks, that the judge sent them away for too long.  We usually don’t know what they were really arrested for, only what they were convicted for. We don’t know their rap sheets, their plea bargains, the ingredients that really went into their situation.  And we don’t know – for sure – what they are really likely to do as soon as we set them free again.

In this vacuum, we just see a long sentence, and we feel compassion, so we are encouraged to let them go with time served, and perhaps even amend the standards downward, so it doesn’t happen again.

Unfortunately, such planned reductions in standard sentencing too often forget the reasons why our society implemented mandatory sentencing ranges in the first place, many years ago: because too many judges and juries are soft touches, and because government’s job is still to do everything it can to protect law-abiding citizens from those who have been proven in court to be dangers to the public.

Let us consider one fascinating case as an example, one that has been quietly working its way into news coverage just these past few months.

Samuel Little, also known as Samuel McDowell, among other aliases, is a 78-year-old lifelong criminal, most recently convicted in 2014, currently in jail for three California murders.

In recent months, with no reason to deny it any longer, he has begun to talk, and the results have been chilling.

Samuel Little has been a criminal for at least 60 years, with rap sheets in state after state – 24 states in all – as currently reported (though with all the aliases he has used, no one is quite certain when the list ends).  He has confessed to multiple murders with the kind of details that police had always withheld from the public, the kind of details that, as the police say, “only the actual killer would know.”

California, Louisiana, Texas, Florida and Georgia are just the beginning of what could be a long trail, as investigators close out cold cases from 20, 30, maybe even 40 or more years ago.  The reports hesitantly indicate, with levels of confidence growing along with the horror, that he may have killed some ninety people – yes, ninety – over the course of his long life.

Serial killers don’t fit a single pattern.  Some commit their crimes all at once, others over the course of months or years, some in one place, others have a traveling spree.  They are usually caught (sometimes apparently allowing themselves to be caught) before it goes into the decades.

But Samuel Little is an unusual case.  Not only did he commit his killings over a period of decades, but he was constantly in the grip of law enforcement.

The man was caught, tried and convicted, again and again, for lesser crimes, and always sentenced to relatively light sentences that put him back on the street to do it again.

His first conviction was for burglary, at the age of 16, over sixty years ago.  As he moved through his life, he moved from state to state as well.  In the days before modern computers and the internet, this likely played some role in his ability to keep getting short sentences for his convictions – supervision, time served, probation – always too short to keep him out of circulation, always too short to keep him from committing more crimes.

Only in 2014 – at age 75 – was he finally given the three life sentences that have finally protected the law abiding citizens of the United States from this monster.

He didn’t commit these murders, after all, while he was in jail, again and again, from his teens to his final conviction.

It was when he’d be set free, from sentences that were always too short, that he’d go out looking for potential victims, often on the margins – sometimes, it is believed, hookers, addicts or runaways – though with ninety killings to explain, it’s likely that his victim list includes people of every demographic, both respectable and otherwise.

As reporters try to figure out what to say about this demon, as each new revelation closes out another case from the 1990s, the 80s, the 70s… there are political and sociological biases that creep into the news coverage.

One will report that he got away with it because we didn’t have sophisticated computers back then – but the facility for data-sharing between jurisdictions has been available for generations.  Another will place the blame on his many aliases – but he couldn’t disguise his fingerprints, and use of fingerprints in police work dates back generations as well.

The most politically-motivated of commentators have argued that some of his victims were people on the margins of society, claiming that police stations don’t worry as much about murder victims if they’re prostitutes or addicts (while possible in some cases, it’s more likely that such killings are just much harder to solve, due to the victims’ transient nature and the lack of witnesses who can comfortably contribute to investigations).

But to be fair, to be truly honest, we need to admit this: again and again, in state after state, law enforcement caught him, convicted him, and sentenced him, then set him free early enough to commit more crimes… just as the system does with so many other criminals.  We catch them, we convict them, we jail them, and then we let them go, too soon, endangering our society again, sooner than we had to. This is undeniable, and it deserves analysis.

It is tempting to say that the Samuel Little example is an extreme case, and we should not make decisions based on such a case. but it is actually an excellent example of the problem, different only in scale. Between incarcerations, Samuel Little committed avoidable murders; others, between their own too-short incarcerations, they committed avoidable robberies, drug deals, rapes or muggings.  Either way, they spent their free time doing things that put them back in prison.  If we had just kept them in prison throughout, those victims would have been spared.

We want to avoid being unfair; we want to give criminals second chances.  So we often write our sentencing guidelines to ensure that past crimes are not taken into account in this new crime’s sentencing.  Or we write the penalty ranges to be appropriate only for the crime of which the defendant was convicted, not for the many other crimes that he may have gotten away with, not for the many other crimes that he will almost certainly commit when he is set free again.

One of the greatest psychological challenges for a prosecutor is the fact that the defendant is sitting there in the courtroom, doing his best to look sympathetic.  The store or house that was robbed is just a store or house; it’s not as compelling as the sad-faced defendant, wearing a mask of contrition, whose attorney has portrayed as an underprivileged everyman, one who never got a break, one for whom we simply must have compassion if we claim to have a heart.

How, in this environment, can we fulfill society’s obligation to protect society – to protect his future victims – from this potential robber, rapist, brawler, or killer?

Only with mandatory sentencing.  Even though such sentencing may sometimes seem too harsh, it fulfills the society’s need to keep known, proven villains off the streets longer than a lack of such mandates would.

In the 1990s, when Rudy Giuliani served as Mayor of New York City, he practiced a level of super-enforcement, based on the theory that if you can stop people from committing the minor crimes, most of them will never have a chance to graduate to major ones.

And by the same token, simple math bears it out:  if a man is in jail for 20 years, that’s 18 years longer than he’d have been in jail if we’d only sentenced him for two years.   The longer he’s in jail, the less opportunity he will have in his life to rob, rape, or kill the innocent people outside those walls.

There is great societal pressure today to retreat on this issue – to open the prison gates, and flood the country with these “poor/miserable/misunderstood” inmates, so they can be free to live next door to us, to get a job and work alongside us, and of course, to show up on election day and vote.  Eliminating the traditional restrictions on felon voting has been a key reason of the Democratic Party’s push for criminal justice reform; some would argue, it’s the only reason.

As a nation, we must resist this effort.

Yes, there are places where tweaking the guidelines is appropriate.  Certainly, there are places where average ranges haven’t been looked at in decades, and should be adjusted up or down.

But on the whole, we must remember what government exists for, in the first place.  We have government to protect our borders from known external threats and to protect our citizenry from known internal threats.

There is nothing you can do about a potential criminal who hasn’t committed any crimes yet, but once you have him, once you’ve caught him, locking him away is the only way to honor our obligation to the American public.  Sure, there are some people who reform, some people who do go straight after their time in jail.  But there are all too many for whom crime is just a part of who they are, and when we set them free, recidivism is the only direction they know.

Look again at Samuel Little.  With a variety of aliases, in a variety of states, he was able to commit crime after crime, murder after murder, for sixty long years.  How many of those 90 victims would be alive today – how many of his strangulation victims would never have encountered his chilling hands – if only he’d been in a concrete cell at the time, where he belonged, safely out of reach of his intended targets?

This is government’s role.  Protect the innocent, convict the guilty, make society safe.

Misguided compassion may be well-intended, but society is not well served by it.  Not in the least.

Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, writer and actor.  His columns regularly appear in Illinois Review.

This column originally appeared in Illinois Review, here.