[Is this case a good argument for permitting enhancement of state jail felony cases to habitual -- 25-life -- status? Are there nonviolent offenders who should spend their lives in prison?]
Sentencing leniency: One criminal's many cases
Light term for burglary shows legal system flaw
By PEGGY O'HARE
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
For more than 20 years, Kevin Earl Lee's life has been a blur of courtrooms, jail cells and the streets. As a homeless man with a weakness for cocaine, he has racked up 28 convictions in Harris County for burglary, theft, drug possession, assault and trespassing.
But through the years, the Harris County District Attorney's Office has cut Lee some considerable slack, most recently last week when a prosecutor agreed to the minimum sentence of six months in jail for Lee's latest burglary conviction.
And in previous cases, various prosecutors repeatedly abandoned punishment enhancements that could have landed Lee years behind bars based on his criminal history, court records show.
The result of Lee's latest slap on the wrist means the 47-year-old Army veteran will likely return to his usual haunts on the streets of downtown Houston early next year.
A lack of consistency
The plea agreement drew attention because of Lee's lengthy record. As a result, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said his senior prosecutors will explore how to make punishment recommendations more consistent.
Rosenthal also said the prosecutor who handled the case, Tina Ansari, now regrets giving Lee a minimal sentence.
"She is embarrassed and realized she made a mistake," Rosenthal said.
He said tougher sentencing procedures could have been pursued to ensure Lee spent more time in jail.
"There was no reason we had to plead him as quickly as we did," Rosenthal said.
Ansari did not return calls seeking comment, and the chief prosecutor of the court, Sunni Mitchell, also could not be reached.
Rosenthal said his senior prosecutors will discuss how to offer more consistent and uniform sentences to defendants willing to plead guilty, so there is less disparity among the courts. They will submit a proposal to him for approval.
Lee was arrested Sept. 14 for burglary with intent to commit theft after he went into a high-rise office building at 1201 Louisiana and stole some laptop computers, police said. He agreed to plead guilty three days later to the state jail felony offense, which carried a punishment range of six months to two years in lockup.
Ansari signed off on a plea agreement calling for Lee to serve six months in a state jail facility. Because Lee agreed to plead guilty before he was indicted by a grand jury, his previous felony convictions were not used to enhance his punishment, which could have extended his sentence up to 10 years.
Prosecutors could not use the so-called three strikes rule to penalize Lee as a true habitual offender, which would have called for a minimum of 25 years and up to life in prison, because his latest offense and almost all of his prior convictions are state jail felonies. More serious crimes are required to elevate an offender to such a status.
"State jail felonies won't get you there, and misdemeanors won't get you there," said Patrick McCann, president of the Harris County Lawyers Association.
Lee does have two first-degree felony convictions from 1985 for burglary of a habitation-theft, but he was granted probation for those crimes, so they will not count toward his eligibility as a habitual offender.
The longest he has ever served in jail is two years for a burglary conviction handed down in 1998.
History of drug abuse
Lee's colorful criminal career began here in Houston when he was convicted of burglarizing two apartments at the same complex in the 8400 block of Wilcrest in 1985.
In the years since, he has been convicted of burglarizing the Old Cotton Exchange building, when he swiped a laptop computer from a civil district judge's chambers; shoplifting clothes from the Macy's department store in the 1100 block of Main; stealing a cellular telephone from a man's private office in the 700 block of Main and other criminal adventures.
He also regularly shows up at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where the Department of Veterans Affairs police have frequent contact with him.
Lee told a psychologist who interviewed him in May that he has been homeless off and on for years and has a long history of substance abuse. Long ago, he worked as a cook at several medical facilities, including Bellaire General Hospital, and participated in a labor pool on LaBranch Street, court records show.
Lee reported he drank beer "all day long" and regularly smoked marijuana and crack cocaine, according to the psychologist's report filed with one of Harris County's criminal district courts.
He also told the psychologist he was on "psychiatric disability" a decade ago and has previously told court officials he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But his mental health has never been used as a serious defense.
Court-ordered psychological evaluations done over the years found him legally sane or competent to stand trial. Evaluations done a decade ago concluded he showed no signs of bipolar disorder other than slight euphoria.
One of the victims of Lee's 1985 apartment burglaries, Lester Zedd, was shocked when he learned how many arrests Lee racked up in later years.
Zedd, a member of the Chronicle's sports department, also expressed disappointment that prosecutors agreed to a minimum sentence Monday for Lee's latest burglary.
"To me, that's almost unconscionable considering his past record," Zedd said. "It just boggles my mind he's been arrested so many times and he continues to be a problem. It sounds like he hasn't learned a lesson. It sounds like the criminal justice system is broken in this situation."
Despite his lengthy record, prosecutors in at least nine previous cases agreed to abandon punishment enhancements for Lee's crimes that could have landed him more time behind bars.
Not all prosecutors were so lenient, however. In 2002, when Lee faced a criminal mischief charge, he suggested prosecutors give him 30 days in lockup. His request was refused.
"Mr. Lee � I respectfully decline your offer of 30 days. You have a long record of breaking into places. You can go to prison," wrote a prosecutor, who signed the note on Lee's court papers only as "Chief DA."
Lee served a year in jail for that offense.
In this case, I don't think a stiffer State Jail statute would make any differance. It sounds like this fellow has been elgible for many years to be prosecuted as a State Jail Habitual Criminal, which has a penalty range of 2 to 20 years, and yet the longest sentence he's ever gotten was 2 years. This appears to be due to prosecutors failing to take his cases seriously, and making quick deals to just move his cases off their docket.
We all know of defendants with extensive criminal histories who, frankly, don't get what they truly deserve. And I certainly think there are plenty of nonviolent, habitual offenders who should be taken off the streets for good. People who have been given chance after chance to rehabilitate themselves - all for naught. I'm referring in particular to career thiefs and dopers - not burglars, as in the article. But these situations present a true Catch-22: If we don't severely punish these defendants we get chastised for being soft. But if we hammer these guys we get chastised from the other side for being too hard on those poor souls who are simply slaves to their addiction, or products of a broken home, or whatever lame, feel-good excuse applies in the particular case. Nobody ever hears about (or pays attention to) the criminal history. They just hear about the instant criminal offense. Remember the 16 year sentence for stealing a Snickers?
This guy, maybe?
A man walked into the Lew Sterrett Justice Center on Thursday and told sheriff’s deputies he killed his girlfriend, according to police.
"Deputies followed 40-year-old Christopher Worley’s directions to an apartment in the 4500 block of Munger Avenue and found its resident, 51-year-old Becky Gee dead inside.
Worley has a lengthy record of arrests and convictions in Tarrant County and has spent time in Huntsville prison — though for crimes far less serious that murder, such as drug charges and thefts."
I don't know whether he fits the topic of the original question, but I had a difficult time finding a good thread that discussed "nonviolent" offenders.
Wow, Gretchen! You looked through 5 years of threads before finding this one to post on? I'm impressed.
I never bother to check if there have been similar posts before. In fact, as I read the original post on this thread I was going to put in a reply, until I discovered that I already had made a comment back in 2007. No telling how many times I've repeated myself.
But to answer John's original question: there are some chronic thieves, burglars, etc. who just need to be locked up for a very, very long time, even tho they are not violent. They cause lots of trouble for lots of people, they make people feel insecure, and they never learn. It costs a lot of bucks to incarcerate a man, but chronic thieves cost lots of bucks not only to their victims, but to the community at large that feels compelled to spend money and time and worry securing their property from thieves.
Additionally, there are some criminals that the legislature classifies as "non-violent," simply because the crime they are doing their time for does not include the element of violence, but they are in fact very violent. Drug dealers have to be willing to use violence to enforce their contracts, for example. Al Capone, who was personally a very violent guy, and ran a large, extremely violent criminal organization, went to prison on tax evasion charges. The legislature's criminal law gurus would require TDC to classify such an inmate as "non-violent." You can save a lot of money if you can get away with reclassifying people to non-violent, based on unrealistic criteria.
I do love using the search feature (always have) - all kinds of fun, previously forgotten threads pop up! Hardly ever the one that I am actually looking for (at least not on the first search page), but I could spend hours just reading through some of the wisdom and humor on here (probably due to my ADHD and tendency to procrastinate).
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