The Smokey White Debacle Was Inevitable, Wasn’t It?

We’re going to talk about Smokey White, but this isn’t going to be a wholesale castigation, or a bitter “I told you so,” on the question of the prison reform package passed earlier this year in Louisiana. We’ve already expressed concerns that the implementation of some of those reforms would amount to little more than jettisoning prisoners who damn well belonged in jail on a willy-nilly basis – we did that last week when Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Department of Corrections cut loose some 1,900 prisoners as part of an effort to stop Louisiana from being the world leader in incarcerating its population.

So who is Smokey White? He’s probably going to be the Willie Horton of Louisiana by the time the 2019 elections roll around

Kenner Police Chief Michael Glaser has a lot of questions for state prison officials.

He’s asking why a man with a 40-page rap sheet and more than 60 arrests was eligible for early release.

“We present the cases, get them convicted, send to prison only to turn around and they’re right back in the community,” Glaser said.

According to police, two men were working on the roof of a duplex in the 600 block of 27th street in Kenner, when Tyrone “Smokey” White, 24, approached them with a gun, demanded money and robbed them.

White is one of 1900 inmates released from prison last week as part of Louisiana’s Justice Reinvestment Act.

He pled guilty in 2014 to 4 counts of simple burglary for which he received a 12-year sentence. White was released last Tuesday after serving less then 4 years of the sentence.

“Use the criminal justice system, I guess to save money, it’s not going to work,” Glaser said. “You’re going get people hurt, injured and killed before it’s over.”

Betty Sharper lives across the street from where the armed robbery happened in the Sharon Park subdivision.

“One of the guys said (White) took $900 dollars and a five and three ones,” Sharper said. “The other guy said he just laid down on the roof and he wouldn’t come down.”

Sharper added White is now back where he belongs.

“If he didn’t think enough of his own freedom to get a legitimate job and do right for himself, he’s where he wants to be back in the jailhouse, so let him stay there,” Sharper said.

Lest there be the slightest bit of doubt that this was a career criminal, allow us to disabuse our readers of that notion…

White’s 40-page criminal history reveals that he has been arrested and charged with the crimes of illegal carrying of weapons, criminal trespassing, resisting an officer, illegal possession of a stolen hand gun and 64 counts of simple burglary.

“I don’t know exactly what needs to be done or how to rehabilitate someone like this, but he’s 24-years-old,” Glaser said. “He’s led, I guess, a life of crime.”

This was exactly what we expected would happen, and it isn’t going to be an isolated incident. We all know that.

DOC put out a press release yesterday afternoon following Smokey White’s arrest which reads like damage control…

Unfortunately, after being given another chance at becoming part of society, it seems as though Tyrone White squandered that opportunity. This week, law enforcement in Jefferson Parish responded quickly to the incident involving White, who is in custody and charged with armed robbery. Probation and Parole was immediately notified about the incident and his subsequent arrest. That means the system is working.

At the time of his release on November 2, 2017, White was serving time for simple burglary, which is not listed as a violent crime under Louisiana law. He was incarcerated approximately four years. Prior to his early release, he met with a transition specialist and received 100 hours of re-entry programming.

Some parolees will re-offend, but the reforms are working and we cannot let anecdote trump proven data to prevent us from adopting evidence-based strategies that have increased public safety in many of our neighboring states, and it will work in Louisiana as well.

Criminologists will tell you that the vast majority of crimes, particularly the violent ones, are committed by a relatively small number of career criminals. Given that, it’s almost impossible not to look at Smokey White, who is 24 and has spent the last four years in jail but nevertheless still had a 40-page rap sheet including 64 different counts for simple burglary, and think he’s anything other than a member of that class.

So if Smokey White is one of the “marginal” cases where we’re letting nonviolent criminals out of prison with an expectation they won’t continue committing crimes, then there is a real problem here.

And DOC isn’t doing itself, Edwards or the prison reform crowd any favors by making a statement like “the reforms are working.” First of all, we won’t know whether they’re working for some time yet, because those 1,900 releases are barely a week old. And second, a statement like that is a classic case of Famous Last Words. What if the next Smokey White turns out to kill somebody? Are they going to say “the reforms are working” then?

The concern about criminal justice reform with Edwards as the governor was always going to be that it was about driving a number rather than attempting to execute good policy. Edwards raised that concern when he went around on the campaign trail, and particularly to black audiences he was pandering to, promising he’d let 5,500 prisoners out of jail because that’s what it would take to place Louisiana below Mississippi in incarceration rates. When his opponent David Vitter made that a campaign issue Vitter was castigated as a racist. Naturally.

Letting prisoners out in order to drive a number is what gets you Smokey Whites – or worse. Good policy is letting prisoners out who can reasonably be determined won’t be a threat to the community, and if that’s a lot smaller number than 5,500, or 1,900, then so be it.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country for a really good reason – Louisiana has more criminals per capita than anywhere else. Which is why Louisiana has led the league in murder rates for 28 years running. There are lots of factors which drive that, and those factors are the ones which need to be addressed first before any discussion of lowering the incarceration rate can be had.

There are people in the prison reform camp who understand this, and have made good-faith efforts to include that understanding in making policy. But the Right On Crime types are not the ones implementing prison reform – John Bel Edwards is.

And Edwards has given us Smokey White, along with an assurance that “the reforms are working.” Forgive us for being a bit skeptical.

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