What was Ryan Giroux doing free on the streets of a Phoenix suburb — free, that is, to go on a shooting rampage that killed one person, left five more injured and traumatized countless witnesses?
He was free for one simple reason: Our criminal justice system set him free because it is broken in fundamental respects that politicians refuse to recognize.
Giroux is what criminologists would call a “violent predator.” Crime fits on a bell curve. A very small number of criminals — the right tail of the right tail of the curve — commit a disproportionate amount of all crime.
The obvious policy response to this well-accepted view is to incapacitate these folks for a very long time the first time we catch them. The “three strikes” rhetoric is just that. It’s a fantasy. Our system of catching and punishing wrongdoers is sufficiently inefficient that these guys are in their 40s and have committed many times more violent crimes than three by the time we catch and convict them.
So you look at Giroux, and it’s only surprising in a theatrical sense. A guy who never had any business being back on the streets commits a violent crime after having spent his life to date either serving time or committing crimes for which he never got punished.
Giroux has a record of violence in two states dating from 1993 to 2013. Where he should have been is in prison. In California, he was convicted twice of assault with a deadly weapon. But in California, the prisons have been notoriously overcrowded, with way too many nonviolent drug offenders facing the mandatory minimum sentences that were so popular a few years ago.
Now we are beginning to see what those laws have produced: overcrowded prisons with large nursing homes for their aging populations, violent criminals who get out early, and judges and juries who lack the discretion they should have to make judgments about just how dangerous a defendant is.
As for Giroux, he also served two terms in Arizona: one three-year term for burglary, theft, a drug offense and attempted aggravated assault, and one seven-year term for attempted assault. According to published reports, he was released in October of 2013.
Seven years is actually a very long time in most state prison systems. What you hear pronounced in the courtroom is not what actually happens. Almost everyone serves less time than their sentence, even where truth in sentencing is supposed to be the rule. No one wants to talk about the problem, because it involves charges of racism: The prisons are full of men of color who come from single-parent families where drugs were used, who didn’t graduate from high school, many of them affiliated with gangs inside and outside the prison. They aren’t there because they’re African American, but they are African American, disproportionately.
So who should get that prison space: the Ryan Girouxs, the nonviolent drug offenders, or the white-collar offenders who are guilty but not dangerous because they will never again be in a position to steal?
Remember that when it comes to violent crime, young black men predominate as victims, as well. So how can it be racist to stand up for the victim?
And the reason to let nonviolent drug dealers out before armed robbers is, frankly, that we’re all more frightened of armed robbery, and that should be reflected in the punishment. And yes, it’s terribly unfair that white-collar criminals have traditionally fared better than drug-crazed gangsters who hit convenient stores. But it’s not because they’re white. It’s because the danger they pose is financial, not personal.