Life without Parole

August 23, 1993

Rodney Eugene Solomon was given life without possibility of parole for the auto hijacking murder of Pam Basu. He will not be able to harm an innocent victim ever again. That is one thing prison can do -- prevent the dangerous from doing harm in society. Prison may or may not be able to rehabilitate, but it sure can incapacitate. It is no coincidence that rising crime rates leveled off and even declined when a prison-building boom began.

If Solomon had been behind bars last September, Pam Basu would be alive today. He should have been behind bars then because he was a two-time loser (twice convicted for robbery) who had been arrested again but was out of jail on bail. District of Columbia prosecutors wanted him in jail until trial, because they regarded him as a danger to the community, but a judge let him out.

If Larry Martin Demery had been in jail instead of out on bail awaiting trial for armed robbery, he would not be charged today, with Daniel Andre Green, with the murder of James Jordan in North Carolina. Mr. Green would not be charged with murder if he had not been paroled two months ago after serving less than two years in prison for armed robbery and assault with intent to kill.

These criminals' names are familiar to newspaper readers because they were involved in high-visibility crimes. The Basu murder was so terrifying that it made headlines and television screens all across the nation and inspired President Bush and Congress to make auto hijacking a federal crime. The Jordan murder was international news because he was the father of athletic mega-star Michael Jordan. But thousands of lesser-known Americans are victimized every week by violent criminals who ought to be in prison but are not, for one reason or another.

Many are not because state prisons lack the cells to hold them. That is in part because there have not been enough alternatives to imprisonment for non-violent criminals. If alternative and effective punishment could be devised for simple drug possession and crimes against property, more violent criminals could be incapacitated. Some criminologists believe the only way to do this is to build more prisons. Some believe that demographics will mitigate the need for that in the near term, since the number of males in their late teens and early twenties has begun to decline.

Those responsible for public safety need to assign the highest priority to keeping as many violent criminals off the streets for as long as possible. Lengthy terms have been criticized in some quarters, for good reason in our view when it comes to some non-violent crime. But one thing all involved agree on is that the older a man convicted of violent crimes is when he comes out of prison, the less likely he is to assault or kill again.

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