This commentary originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on March 16, 2016.
For a generation, conservatives in Texas have lead the way toward criminal justice reform and in so doing have emphasized support for victims and smarter policies aimed at the most efficient use of public resources. Following Texas' lead other states have instituted proven, data-driven policies that have helped keep families together, saved taxpayer money and enhanced public safety, so now policymakers are considering similar reforms in Congress.
Despite the clear record of conservative success, change takes time and the status quo rarely gives up without a fight.
The appalling situation of Wendell Callahan is a case in point. It does not cast the record of reform in doubt, rather it is evidence of the clear need to continue to affect change in the system. And instead of casting him in the role of a modern Willie Horton, policymakers should look to his case as a clarion call for further reform. Mr. Callahan is a two-bit crack dealer from Columbus, Ohio with a well-documented history of violence, including multiple serious assaults and a nonfatal shooting. However, his most recent conviction in 2007 was only in respect to the sale of crack-cocaine, taking no account of his violent history.
As the guidelines on crack distribution were adjusted post-hoc to Callahan's sentencing, his sentence was reduced. However, Callahan would still be behind bars today if not for the careless assent of prosecutors that "his early release did not present a danger to the safety of the public," despite his demonstrable criminal history.
In early January, Callahan entered the apartment of Erveena Hammonds – an ex-girlfriend who according to police he had previously lifted by the neck and choked – and murdered her and her two daughters with a knife. While it would be easy to lay blame for this travesty at the feet of the prosecutors or the sentencing commission, doing so would prevent a productive discussion on criminal justice policy.
This narrative is predicated on two fallacies: that the horrendous murders were proximately caused by the actions of a few entrusted actors, and that of a cascading interpretation of criminal culpability.
The murders occurred in January, but Callahan was released from custody in August 2014, almost a year and a half earlier. This decision was made in regards to risk-agnostic release policies and, since the abolition of federal parole in 1987, the government had no mechanism by which to monitor Callahan to ensure he was complying with release terms. The counter to such policies would not be to eliminate release in all respects, but to ensure that release is responsive to offender risk and that such offenders are able to be monitored.
The second, that all drug crimes are violent crimes, is so anathema to western law that it barely warrants response. This suggests that all those who traffic in narcotics are partly culpable for any violence done in its furtherance.
Such would be true if all those deemed "traffickers" under federal law were so. However, due to findings and declarations made on the many various components of federal trafficking law, almost anyone who qualifies under simple possession statutes could be seen as a trafficker under federal law.
According to Federal Sentencing Commission data, only about 10 percent of federal inmates were in any position of prominent leadership. Being caught in possession of a controlled substance should warrant a commensurate punishment, but to say that it's tantamount to murder is ridiculous.
In-facility recidivism reduction policies draw upon the successes experienced in the states and Texas has experienced a marked reduction in both crime and incarceration after reducing sentencing and expanding programming. This is an example that the federal criminal justice system would be poised to follow should Congress choose.
Three innocent lives were taken by a man who should not have seen freedom until he was well beyond the capacity to harm another. Unfortunately, we have created criminal justice system that prioritizes the finalization of convictions over public safety; of simple retribution over rehabilitation.
That's why Congress is considering legislation that would reform the federal criminal justice system to, among other things, cut unnecessarily long mandatory sentences in some cases as well as ease prisoners' re-entry into society after their time is served. We know these reforms work because they have been successful in the states. So we should follow their example and push for a system that works, not one that simply makes us feel that punishment has delivered regardless of outcome.
Cohen is deputy director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.