Thursday, June 10, 2010

Arizona Rancher’s Murder: Bad Cases Make Bad Laws

The uproar around the recent murder of southern Arizona rancher Robert Krentz may lead to some very bad policies.

Having worked for 20 years as a psychologist in the Wayne County court system, I have not been too surprised by some of the recent claims about the relationship between immigrants and crime in southern Arizona and the border. It reminded me of the 1980s when similar mythologies about minority teenagers and crime arose not only in Detroit but all over the country.

In the Reagan era, we began hearing a concerted campaign from hardline partisans that the American streets were being taken over by a new breed of adolescents, typecast as the "super predators." We were told that they would soon create social chaos unless harsh new laws were quickly passed. Many of my experienced co-workers were skeptical, but our doubts were not shared by legislators. They could tell which way the winds were blowing politically and were not going to miss a chance to jump on the "tough on crime" train. We used to joke that after the fall of the Berlin wall and communism, no shrewd politician could afford to not be tough on minority teen delinquents, the new "Communists." In the next decade, Michigan and the majority of American states passed laws that allowed prosecutors to charge pre-adult teen as adults, and many were convicted given life sentences without possibility of parole. Many of us who worked with such adolescents tried to speak up but there was little interest in what we had to say.

A single case was responsible for quick passage of the newly-proposed Michigan anti-“Super predator” law, with all unproven assumptions. The Detroit TV stations and newspapers headlined for weeks a case of 4 minority youth who carjacked a white suburbanite, shooting and killing him during the robbery. All the "Super predator" propaganda converged on that case, and soon new harsh legislation sailed through the Michigan Legislature, and found Gov. Engler eager to sign the new bill.

It was a classic illustration of the old legal maxim, "bad cases make bad law."

Within a few years a more accurate picture of juvenile crime emerged from scientific studies. We discovered that the "super predator" stereotype was the work of a small coterie of right wing ideologues who believe that the role of government was to lock mostly minority youth for selling illegal drugs to mostly white customers. By then however the damage was done, the laws were passed, a new practice of prosecutorial discretion was ensconced, and a great many minority youths, Some as young as 13 were in prison often for long terms. In Michigan, the new legislation was particularly harsh. It permitted prosecutors to charge children as adults, with no minimum age limit. “They committed adult crimes -- Let ‘em serve adult time!”

In Arizona recently, Robert Krentz, a popular Arizona rancher near the border with Mexico, was found shot to death. Immediately the news media reported a story that the shooter had been tracked across the desert to Mexico.

On March 30, Fox News reported “Illegal Immigrant Suspected in Killing of Arizona Rancher”

The right-wing blogosphere went crazy, convinced that this proved their belief that all illegal entrants are criminals anyway, and that soon Arizona would be overrun by the explosion of drug-gang violence responsible for over 20,000 murders in Mexico. Soon John McCain, in a tough primary race against far more conservative JD Hayworth, was demanding that 6000 troops be moved to the border. McCain's 2007 sponsorship of Comprehensive Immigration Reform was heard from no more. Political panic has taken over.

On May 3, an Arizona Daily Star’s front-page story reported "An American is under investigation." Several weeks later, Tucson's Arizona Star front page headlined "Border is relatively safe government data show: officers on the US-Mexico line assaulted less than city cops." The story noted that "the top four big cities in America with the lowest rate violent crime are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, and Austin according to a new FBI report. And an in-house Customs and Border Protection report shows that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than street cops in most US cities."

An attached graph showed that 71% of 1073 of “assaults” against Border Patrol in 2009 were "thrown rocks."

The Krentz shooting has still not been solved. But the coverage suggests how politically volatile the atmosphere is down here. And unfortunately it is infecting the whole country. And this kind of an atmosphere one realizes more than ever how crucial it is to have an independent Fourth Estate . And to not make policy based on what we don't know. And to not spend $500 million on a problem that cannot be solved by hiring more Border Patrol agents. In a coming blog marshal some strong evidence for that statement.

Remember: "Bad cases make bad laws."

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