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Mark Rivera

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Mark Rivera, Customer Retention Manager and CJIS Security Compliance Officer with Vigilant Solutions, served for sixteen years with the Maryland State Police, retiring at the rank of First Sergeant with thirteen of those years at the supervisory and command level. He holds a Master of Science Degree in Management from The Johns Hopkins University and Secret clearance through the FBI, Baltimore.

Columns : Editorial

The Fallacy of the Nonviolent Offender

Just because some convict is classified "nonviolent" that doesn't mean he is.

September 17, 2009  |  by - Also by this author


If you listen to prison reform advocates in this country, you'll hear that our state pens are full of nonviolent drug users who got smacked down by "The Man" because they were huffing up some stems and seeds in a bong.

That's the argument that a number of newspapers and political figures are using to advance the idea that we should release some prisoners early to reduce prison overcrowding and save money.

That argument is dangerous to you and the people you serve.

First, in most states, Joe the Stoner does not go to the pen; he goes to drug rehab or diversion (or he goes home because hardly anybody prosecutes stoners anymore). And everyone advancing this argument should know that to be the case: After all, they are the ones who established alternative drug sentencing in the first place.

The "nonviolent" offenders populating our prisons are not college students caught with dime bags. They are dangerous people who fall into two classes: those who actually committed nonviolent offenses and were convicted of those offenses or those who plea-bargained down from other offenses-likely violent offenses-and were convicted of a nonviolent offense.

"Nonviolent" offenders sent to penitentiaries are not nice people. They could have committed any of the following crimes and still be classified "nonviolent": burglary, breaking and entering, grand theft auto, identity theft, drug trafficking, and the list goes on and on.

And remember, these are just the crimes that got them convicted. It's not hard to imagine that the guy busted for drug trafficking was maybe carrying an illegal concealed weapon at the same time he was collared for slinging rock cocaine and maybe there's strong evidence that he used that gun to throw a few rounds at a rival. Facing an assault with a deadly weapon charge, our drug trafficker is advised by his public defender to cop a plea to selling rock cocaine. Presto! He is now a nonviolent offender.

Here's all you really need to know about so-called nonviolent offenders. In 2004 the Bureau of Justice Statistics studied nonviolent offenders exiting state prisons. Here's the highlights of that study:

  • Some 95 percent of these inmates had been arrested prior to the arrest that sent them to prison
  • About 33 percent of "nonviolent" offenders had a history of arrests for violent crimes
  • Eight percent of nonviolent offenders used a weapon during their "nonviolent" offense
  • Approximately 70 percent of nonviolent offenders are rearrested within three years

These are the people that prison reformers and bean counters want to put back on the street. You will have to clean up the mess. And it will get very messy.

Consider these two guys who were classified as "nonviolent" offenders by the legal system.

Patrick Tracy Burris-This lovely dude recently killed five people in a serial shooting spree in Gaffney, S.C. He was shot and killed by Gastonia, N.C., officers who tried to arrest him for an unrelated offense. One of those officers was shot in the leg.

Burris had a rap sheet reportedly 25 pages long, but no convictions for "violent" offenses.

Charles Samuel-Although he should have been imprisoned for life under California's three strikes law, Samuel was free on the streets of Los Angeles on July 26 when 17-year-old Lily Burk was carjacked, kidnapped, and murdered. Samuel has been charged with the crime.

Samuel's first two strikes were residential robbery and burglary. So he had two serious felonies on his record, one violent. In 2006, Samuel was charged with petty theft in Los Angeles. Even though his third strike was a minor nonviolent offense, L.A. County prosecutors could have sent Samuel away for life. But district attorney Steve Cooley has an unofficial policy of not pursuing a third strike for a minor offense because he doesn't want to be in the paper defending the prosecution of some homeless convict for stealing a slice of pizza. So as far as L.A. County was concerned, Samuel was a "nonviolent" offender, even though he had previously committed violent felonies.

The next time somebody tells you that it's a great idea to let "nonviolent" offenders out of prison, tell them about Lily Burk and the five people murdered in Gaffney. Then tell them to shut up.


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