The crime is particularly galling, the kind that produces instant, understandable ire.
That’s exactly what the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office accused 23-year-old Roman Anthony Mira of this week, levying charges of attempted second-degree robbery against him.
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Online, Facebook commenters went further, expressing sentiments ranging from, “Lock him up for years,” to the plainly straightforward “Death penalty.”
Predictable bloodlust. While I’m not endorsing a community stoning, I’m also not here to argue that swift justice isn’t warranted if Mira is found guilty.
But the alleged crime, even with its deplorable and knee-jerk-inducing details, raises a squirmy, uncomfortable proposition for proponents of ending mass incarceration in the United States.
If we really — and I mean really — want to reduce the alarming number of people behind bars in this country, this is exactly the type of crime we need to grapple with.
This is complicated, of course, given the alternative narrative that’s been repeated so many times at this point that it’s effectively been built into unassailable truth for many reformers.
That truth goes something like this: The massive increase in our prison population between roughly 1980 and the beginning of this decade — and specifically the disproportionate number of young African American men behind bars — is solely a result of the failed War on Drugs, nonviolent drug offenses, the private prison industrial complex and mandatory-minimum sentences.
The problem with this “Standard Story,” as Fordham University law professor John Pfaff has coined it, is that in blunt terms it’s not true, and in slightly more diplomatic language, the reality is far more complicated.
Don’t be mistaken — all of those policies and practices remain hugely problematic and deserve righting. At the same time, influences like clear, systematic racism and the socioeconomic ways it reverberates in communities of color, along with the way the War on Drugs itself breeds violence, play significant parts here. So too does the proliferation of guns and their innate ability to turn a relatively minor offense into a catastrophic one by their mere existence and availability.
But suggesting that American’s mass incarceration story ends there can miss the larger story.
Pfaff is the author of Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform. In his book, he points to state prison data showing that nonviolent drug offenses were responsible for only about a fifth of the new incarcerations during the nearly three-decade spike in lockups, while half the growth came from violent-offense convictions.
“In reality, only about 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges — and very few of them, perhaps only around 5 or 6 percent of that group, are both low level and nonviolent,” Pfaff observes in Locked In.
In other words, even if we were to release every nonviolent drug offender tomorrow, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in our overall prison population.
If there’s a way forward — or at least a way forward that doesn’t involve the United States continuing its history of locking up more people, per capita, than any nation in the world — Pfaff contends that it’s by acknowledging how we reached this point and who holds the power the change it.
Largely, Pfaff contends, that’s a story about our nation’s reaction — or overreaction — to the violent crime spike we experienced from the 1960s to the 1990s. It's also a story of local prosecutors and the outsized influence they now have in determining who ends up behind bars and for how long.
There are multiple facets to this phenomenon.
First, prosecutors are political creatures, and public sentiment is rarely won by going easy on offenders. If there’s political capital to be made, it’s often derived from coming down hard in high-profile cases — like, say, attempting to rob a Girl Scout — and making examples out of those who have broken the law, especially through violence.
Second, while mandatory-minimum sentences might not be as much to blame for American’s prison overpopulation as we like to give them credit for, the ability of prosecutors to coerce plea deals using the specter of unfathomably long prison sentences as leverage gives them immense, often unchecked power.
As Adam Gopnik reported in the New Yorker last year, “Some 95 percent of criminal cases in the U.S. are decided by plea bargains — the risk of being convicted of a more serious offense and getting a much longer sentence is a formidable incentive — and so prosecutors can determine another man’s crime and punishment while scarcely setting foot in a courtroom.”
As a counterbalance, Pfaff suggests some fixes — some of them aspirational at best, others more realistic.
On the realistic front, guidelines that would limit a prosecutor’s ability to over-aggressively charge defendants would likely go a long way as would beefing up local public defenders and providing adequate funding for the daunting caseloads they’re forced to contend with.
Which brings us full circle.
As Gopnik reported in the same New Yorker article, “6.7 million people, mostly men, were under correctional supervision during the year 2015 — more than were enslaved in antebellum America and more than resided in the Gulag Archipelago at the height of Stalin’s misrule.”
Want to change that?
If so, it’s going to take more than targeting nonviolent drug offenses.
It’s likely going to require rewarding prosecutors for something other than throwing the book at defendants. And it’s going to mean confronting and then rethinking the way we handle offenses like the one Mira stands accused of.
Because, the real test for prison reformers is whether we actually have the appetite to quell our urge for vengeance in cases like this.
What a truly vexing test it is.