murderers are more reliable

by caitlin meredith

caution signThe other day I stopped by the criminal defense attorney’s office that I’ve been doing some work for. His paralegal and I got talking about a particularly unsympathetic client. A young guy with three DWI’s and of course it was always someone else’s fault. I admitted I’d had an easier time working on a recent pedophile’s case – at least he admitted he had a problem and wanted treatment.

I always thought that the hierarchy of criminal awfulness went from murderer on down to shoplifter. In this imagined matrix pedophile placed way, way higher on the disdain grid than drunk driver. Granted, the child sex offender was pretty mild as those cases go, but still – I was shocked by my inversion of sympathies. She wasn’t. “After working as a parole officer for twenty years I can tell you who the best people to work with are: murderers.”


Yup. Murderers. “They’re always where they say they’ll be when they say they’ll be there. I’d pick a murderer off the case pile any day over any other offender.”

OK, but what about gang bangers? “Are you kidding? I was never so safe as I was when I went on a parole visit to a gang banger’s house – he’d put the word out on the street that no one should touch me. No one wanted their parole officer hurt during a visit.” I guess that doesn’t speak to whether a gang member who has killed someone is likely to kill another person, but does speak to their good sense in not getting their parole officer involved at least.

Overhearing our conversation, the defense attorney chimed in. “Oh yeah, a murder is a one time deal. But a thief is always thieving.” Car thieving, apparently, is a lifestyle one doesn’t easily escape from.

When I got home I did some internet research to see if their experiences were some strange, central Texas anomaly. Incredibly, the data backed them up. According to the US Department of Justice website, this is the crew of criminals with the highest rearrest rates:

  • robbers (70.2%)
  • burglars (74.0%)
  • larcenists (74.6%)
  • motor vehicle thieves (78.8%)
  • those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%)
  • those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%)

Unfortunately my internet research petered out before I could Google the differences between a robber, a burglar and a larcenist. The point is, there are no murderers on that list. In fact, they’re on a different DOJ list. The list of the people least likely to go back to prison for the same crime. Only 1.2% of murderers are rearrested for murder within three years of prison release. (As a side note, only 2.5% of rapists are arrested for another rape within three years – that’s comforting.)

I found an article from the Press Republican, an upstate New York paper that tackled this very issue. Amid a 2008 controversy about former Democratic Governor Elliot Spitzer’s increased parole rates for murderers and violent offenders, the New York parole officials tried to stand up to the Republican frenzy by issuing a report about the fate of those liberated parolees. In fact, despite all the up in arms-ness about community risk, not a single one of the 456 violent felons paroled in the previous four years had been sent back to prison for committing a new crime.

Why, why, why?

There seem to be at least a couple major factors. The criminologist the reporter interviewed said that “many killers act impulsively in a fight or during an act of passion — as opposed to ‘career’ criminals who rob or sell drugs as a vocation.” Since the murder is situational, the reasoning is, it’s extremely unlikely to be repeated.

Another thing is that murderers get really long prison sentences, the criminolgist said. That means that by the time they’re released they’re no longer the impulsive, reckless young people who let their tempers flare. A middle-aged guy with high blood pressure and a receding hairline walks out of prison with a more mellow temperament, other things on his to do list.

Let me emphasize here that I’m not suggesting there isn’t justification to punish murderers. It’s just clear that the concern for letting them out once they’ve completed their punishment is exaggerated. They don’t seem to put the community at an increased risk.

What fascinates me about the relative safety of a murderer returning to society is that it’s such a good example of disproportionate societal attention for one issue when it should really be worried about another.

I once asked a federal judge how representative the crimes he saw in his court were of the great ills of our times. He said not at all. In reality, he said, since so much of the FBI’s resources have been shifted to terrorism, white collar crime goes virtually unchecked. Statistically, financial crimes like the mortgage crisis would have a much larger impact on the community than suspected terrorism cases. Instead of convicting rich white guys in ties who figured out how to screw the little guy (us) he was spending his days poring over music pirating cases and esoteric suspected terrorism theories.

I think we can all agree to give a collective thumbs down to murder and terrorism. But there’s solace in the fact that they don’t represent as big of a risk to us out in the world as they do in our minds. In Texas it costs $35,000 per year of tax payers’ money to keep one person incarcerated and yet the zero tolerance politicians keep lobbying for longer sentences. Maybe we should stop spending so much money on preventing people from committing crimes they most likely won’t commit anyway and put the money to better use. I hear some of our women’s health programs need some funding…just an idea.