No one should have been surprised that a judge in Baltimore County gave a 17-year-old boy a life sentence for killing a police officer last year in Perry Hall. Dawnta Harris drove a stolen Jeep Wrangler into and over Officer Amy Caprio when she drew her gun and ordered him to stop. She was 29 years old and married. If you’re the judge in that case, considering all the evidence and the pre-sentence pleadings, and considering that the victim was a police officer, you probably would have done the same.
“It wasn’t unexpected,” defense attorney Warren Brown said outside the courthouse. “The judge was under a lot of pressure.”
Based on the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine any Maryland judge giving Harris anything but the stiffest possible sentence. You might have qualms about it — you might think, as I do, that no teenager should get a life sentence — but you’re not shocked that it happened. After all, there is plenty of precedent for it. We have tried and sentenced juveniles as adults for major crimes for years. The Supreme Court has found the death penalty and life without parole unconstitutional when applied to juvenile offenders, but those rulings are relatively recent.
So, in light of our current system and societal standards, there’s little point in arguing against Judge Jan Marshall Alexander’s sentence of Dawnta Harris.
And yet this tragedy brings back to mind large questions about how we do things in the cause of criminal justice in the 21st Century: Is the singular purpose of prison to punish, or should the point be to change lives, especially young ones? Are we really ready to say that a 17-year-old boy is a lost cause, or do we want a system that finds in him the potential to be a better man? Would we be better off with a prison system that was more merciful and therapeutic?
I don’t expect a victim or the relatives of a victim to be interested in these questions. It’s understandable if harsh punishment alone is what they see as justice. But those who can ponder these questions without emotion should ask: What now for Dawnta Harris?
Do we want a system that simply locks him away until he is 35 or 40 years old, when he might be eligible for parole, or a system intensely dedicated to getting him ready for a successful return to society? Should his eligibility for parole be based on some arbitrary time frame — 15 years? 20 years? 30 years? — or should it be based on Harris’ emotional and psychological progress and the judgement of the Maryland Parole Commission? And should the governor, a politician, have the power to reject a lifer’s parole, as he does now?
Maryland has made significant reforms in corrections since passage of the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2016. Our prison population has fallen, and so has our recidivism rate — that is, the number of offenders who return to prison within three years after their release. The most recent data show that Maryland’s rate has dropped to close to 40 percent. Nationally, however, the recidivism rate for state prisons has been closer to 80 percent, according to the Department of Justice. That’s terrible.
Recidivism should be the primary measure of any correctional system. To have nearly eight out of 10 inmates committing new crimes within three years means the system in most states does not work. Taxpayers are not getting much bang for their bucks. We have primarily the same system we have had for the last couple of centuries — prisons for confinement and only limited activities (skills training, high school and maybe college classes) that could be said to prepare inmates for release.
If you accept that recidivism rates should be how we measure a system’s effectiveness, then it follows that prisons should be about changing lives. And that means adopting a more holistic and humane approach — making detailed assessments of all inmates and providing whatever services they need, over the course of their sentence, so that they leave better than when they arrived.
It’s even more critical that we do this with greater urgency and diligence at the juvenile level, as the case of Dawnta Harris and the death of Officer Caprio demonstrates.
In one of his films, “Where To Invade Next”(2015), Michael Moore visits institutions in Norway that seem more like hotels than prisons. Rapists, killers, robbers and drug addicts live in comfortable conditions while they learn to be “good neighbors.” The punishment is the deprivation of freedom; the main purpose of the system is therapeutic, to maintain or improve Norway’s stellar recidivism rate of just 20 percent.
Moore tells the warden, Tom Eberhardt, that Americans would find such prisons hard to accept. “I don’t understand why you think this is a strange idea,” Eberhardt says. “This is an American idea. Your founding fathers put in your Constitution no ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ You wrote that.”
But a lot of Americans still hold that the confinement in prison cells behind stone walls is neither cruel nor unusual. Until public attitudes change, until the political class recognizes that the current system is still largely a revolving door, we won’t see the better result — a large majority of people who come out of prison better than they went in, and fully prepared for freedom. We have to decide if that’s what we want, then build a new system where rehabilitation is at least as important as punishment, especially for the young.