What do you have to do to get locked up?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The bizarre and tragic case case involving area murder suspect Kirk Levin is a perfect example of all that is wrong with our legal system - and in a strange way, what is right with it, too.

Any sane, intelligent person would say that it is a travesty that someone like Levin was allowed to go free, that is was only a matter of time before something terrible would result.

It's the kind of case that makes a person wonder what you have to do to stay locked up in this state.

Levin had been in trouble with the law repeatedly since his teenage years when he stole whatever he could get his hands on, with no apparent sense of remorse for his actions. Prisons have basically been home for him since he was 17.

Common sense tells us that young Mr. Levin's record is that of a career criminal, that he would very likely be trouble wherever he may go.

Our system, however, is not designed to make such judgements. It only deals out prescribed punishment for the crime of the moment.

In covering crime in Storm Lake and Buena Vista County, I've seen this phenomenon over and over.

Local deputies often use the term, "frequent flyer." It is a person who is out of control, perhaps unredeemably so. They will be arrested for a fight, or domestic abuse, or probation violation, or drug abuse, or dangerous drunken behavior, held in jail a couple of days, given a fine, and put back on the street - because their latest crime isn't yet serious enough or violent enough to justify a big trial or a lengthy prison sentence... yet being the operative word. A month or two later, they get busted again, and the whole things starts over. We pay for their jail, clothe them and feed them and buy them medicine, and almost always, pay for a public defender for them.

There are a handful of these people in Storm Lake and Buena Vista County that I would venture to guess, collectively make up a pretty good percentage of all the crime in our area. If you have a scanner, you hear their names nearly every week for some kind of trouble.

Often I check the jail records when I see the report of their latest mis-deed come across my desk. I'm sorry to say, it is not uncommon here to find that an individual's latest arrest is just the most recent in a stream of them, as regular and predictible as the changing of the calendar pages. Not unusual at all for these people to have six, a dozen, in some cases 20 different arrests or charges over a period of a few years.

It seems to me that violent people stay violent. An argument with a lover, for them, always seems to escalate into blows or fetching the butcher knife from the kitchen. A traffic stop for them always seems to devolve into a wrestling match with police. A night out at a local bar has to end in a brawl on the street.

I've watched law officers and judges do their best, delivering lectures, but in my experience, it all seems to be too little, too late, to change people. Especially when they don't want to change.

A night in jail and a hefty fine might be enough for an otherwise decent person to turn over a new leaf after a one-time bender turns into an OWI, but for that person with a true criminal bent, I'm not sure anything we do will necessarily reform them. It becomes simply a matter of keeping them off the street as long as we can for each of their crimes, in hopes of protecting the public and delaying the inevitable next incident, which might be the one that leaves an innocent person seriously hurt, or worse.

Our system, however, is less jaded than I am. It judges on a person's immediate action, not their criminal "body of work." It idealistically, perhaps naively, holds out hope that a person, short of being a premeditated killer, might always have the faintest glimmer of hope of turning themselves into something of value.

A few even do so. Something, someone, flips a switch in them and they are able to break the cycle. We've all heard the stories of longtime criminals who are inspired to counsel others, to do something to try to make up for their many misdeeds. But life isn't a movie; it's rare.

As frustrating as it can be to a community, and certainly to law enforcement officers, to see people they have arrested time after time let right back on the street, I realize that it would be even worse to give up on that last element of hope for human redemption. It is one thing that sets our justice system apart from and above that of much of the world.

And like it or not, it is not so simple as we would like to make it, saying, "Lock 'em up and throw away the key." We can't build cells fast enough.

About 4 percent of all the people in our country right now are behind bars or on probation - over a fourth of them non-citizens of this country. Since 1980, the number of people in prison has exploded over 400 percent! And as for those people who do their time and get out, nearly 70 percent will be arrested again within the following three years... chilling statistics.

Then there is Mr. Levin, accused of cold-bloodedly strangling and repeatedly stabbing his own mother, allegedly killing her less than 36 hours after being let out of prison.

What a piece of work he is, if we are to believe all the allegations. Brutally murdering the one person who was willing to take him in after all he has done wrong. Then stealing her car to go to Storm Lake, luring in a young mother who had been kind to him online. At 6:30 in the morning, she agreed to give a near-stranger a ride home to Early when he claimed his car broke down, and for her typical-Iowan kindness, she was tied up and thrown in a trunk to be kidnapped, and two area sheriffs belive, untimately murdered if she hadn't been smart enough and lucky enough to get away.

If ever there were a case to throw away a key, this one sounds like it. But again, the system is more open-minded than we as a society are. No matter how horrible a person's actions seem, they are to be considered innocent until proven otherwise. It is the lynchpin of our concept of justice, pure and vital. And even Kirk Levin gets the guarantee of a fair trial in front of a jury if he chooses it, because if we denied that to him, where would we stop in denying such human rights?

What we can change, however, is whether a person must be released, or released early, when they are clearly an imminent threat to their community.

The details that are slowly emerging on Levin make it terrifying clear that he should never have been on the street. He was much more than what he went to prison for, a seemingly okay kid with a nasty habit of joyriding in other people's cars and stealing anything left unattended.

He had apparently admitted to having rape fantasies since his earlier teenage years. Guards had discovered a notebook before his prison release in which he had explicitly written of and drawn pictures of women being assaulted and raped.

And now we learn Levin had in 2009 escaped from a group home and was caught hiding in the basement of a girl he had targeted to rape, carrying duct tape, according to a prosecutor. A clear pattern of behavior that led to what he tried to do to an innocent 21-year-old Storm Lake woman.

We're told now that a doctor who was assigned to counsel Levin had expressed worry that he was going to act on his violent fantasies as soon as he stopped taking medication. Levin has reportedly expressed an interest in drugging women and constructing a soundproof room in which he could rape his victims. The prison even notified the local sheriff, knowing that serious trouble with Levin was a good possibility, and yet nothing was done to try to keep him off the street. What would it take in this state to justify extending a person's time incarcerated? One has to wonder.

All of this evidence, and yet he was allowed to walk out of a prison - and early, no less... just two years into a five-year sentence. Here is where our idealistic, assembly-line system failed us badly.

What in the world happened?

Though Levin was clearly a risk for a violent or sexual crime, he hadn't been sent to prison on a sexual offense, so could not be held under existing policies for potentially-violent predators (we have a unit at Cherokee for just such people after they have served sentences but are not deemed safe to release.)

Levin could have been committed for being deemed unable to act responsibly to obtain treatment for his mental illness, but again, he hadn't followed through on hurting or raping anyone yet, so prison officials say taking such action wouldn't have been justified.

In short, in our system, you are apparently not considered a risk to harm someone, until after you've harmed them. Crazy.

The governor's office, to its discredit, simply throws up its hands. "The department did everything it could," a spokesperson says, as if that were explanation enough.

Governor Branstad has boasted of reducing the number of people in prison and a resulting budget savings, but in retrospect, at what cost?

We're told that Levin got out three years early because of an Iowa law that gives such offenders 1.2 days of credit for every day in prison.

Credit? Why would we reward someone with demonstrated violent and predatory tendancies? What is the point of handing out a sentence if what we really mean is less than half the time, all the time?

An expert in incarceration argued in a Pilot-Tribune article that Iowa's policies as they applied to Levin are thoroughluy messed up. It is dangerous for inmates like Levin to be released without parole, which would have at least involved someone with some experience to apply some vigilance and control to such a convict.

Prison doctors could also, under existing policy, have evaluated Levin and insisted that he face further proceedings, including possibly a civil commitment that would have saved a life. Why didn't they?

We may never know. The expert wanted to know if Levin was given a mental health evaluation before he was let out. The prison system refuses to say, citing medical privacy law, and has issued a blanket refusal to allow the public any knowledge of correspondence involving Levin's time the prison that we pay for.

Unbelievably,prison officials even say that some prison records can't be released without Levin's approval.

What the heck? We understand privacy rights, but when the public safety is compromised, the people's rights should come before those of a criminal convict. If you can lose your right to vote, you can lose your right to approval of records access.

I suspect the records refusal may have less to do with protecting Levin's medical rights than they have to do with covering up a terrible misjudgement.

The problem here, is that if we don't learn from our mistakes with Levin, we will inevitably have another one like him, and another.

Our system is admirable, and its "rights for all" ideology must be protected at all costs. Yet to release someone with all kinds of evidence of violent intentions, with no supervision, is the same as throwing a plugged-in radio into a full bathtub.

Inevitable, an innocent community is going to get shocked.

The life of a quiet woman who loved her rural lifestle and her horses has come to an end in one of the most brutal ways that could be imagined. A trusting and kind young woman may never be the same again, and her toddler daughter was nearly left to grow up without a parent. A whole community of people may never be as trusting, or sleep as innocently, as before. What about their rights? The system is protecting Levin's rights at great length... but don't innocent people have some rights to be protected too?

Both state leaders and justice system leaders should back off trying to cover their own butts in this incident, and accept some responsibility for trying to reduce the risk of this kind of tragedy happening again.

And by the way, parents, with the stories in the news of late, this is a damn good time to remind the young people in your lives to be cautious in who they trust on the internet. If we're not going to keep predators locked up, we're going to have to do a better job of looking out for one another.