Louisville police chief says convicted felons are 'coming back too quickly'
Chief Steve Conrad says the pattern is all too familiar: a convicted violent felon given a lenient sentence and released from prison early only to be charged again.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In May 2010, Quennel Young was one of four men who brutally beat and kicked a 29-year-old man unconscious, causing him to die after several months in the hospital.
While initially charged with murder, a jury found Young guilty of manslaughter in 2012 and recommended he spend 10 years in prison -- a verdict a judge believed not stiff enough, saying Young “deserved a lot more” time behind bars.
“I thought it was a miracle he got ten years,” Circuit Court Judge Geoffrey Morris said during Young’s sentencing hearing. “… It was a horrendous crime.”
Young would only serve about half of that sentence before being released on parole in April 2016.
Just four months later, Young was back in court and charged with murder once again, this time accused of shooting a couple in the Beechmont neighborhood and killing 19-year-old Zachery Napper.
It is a scenario that Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Steve Conrad says is all too familiar: a convicted violent felon given a lenient sentence and released from prison early only to be charged again.
“I believe that most people in this community believe that when people are sent to prison for a certain amount of time, they will spend that time in prison,” Conrad said in an interview with WDRB. “The reality is that almost never happens. … I would argue that in the case of violent criminals, they are coming back too quickly.”
In speaking with WDRB about Louisville’s record number of homicides last year -- 123 murders and more than 500 shootings -- Conrad pointed out a handful of examples he argues shows a pattern of short prison sentences and early releases that create a revolving-door system that threatens public safety and undercuts police morale.
George Slaughter, for example, was convicted of manslaughter and robbery and sentenced to 10 years in prison for shooting and killing 18-year-old Bobby Sweatt in 2007. He was released in 2012.
On Feb. 14, 2016, Slaughter was charged in the shooting deaths of three people.
“Every month we receive a listing of people who are released early from prison,” Conrad said. “Example after example show people are only serving a small fraction of the amount of time they were convicted for.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine said he doesn’t “agree there are too lenient plea deals,” and there are often mitigating factors that give prosecutors no choice but to settle a case for a shorter sentence than they would like, including missing witnesses or weak evidence.
And when a repeat offender is charged again, Wine said, prosecutors also charge the defendant under persistent felony offender laws that lengthen sentences.
“There are ways to deal with those individuals if they cannot be rehabilitated,” he said.
In addition, Wine said the state has a huge problem with prison overcrowding right now; and studies have shown that lengthy sentences have not been shown to prevent future crimes.
“Long periods of incarceration don’t turn out good people,” Wine said. “They come out worse than when they went in.”
The most recent data available, shows about 41 percent of inmates released in 2013 were reincarcerated within two years, and 43 percent of inmates released in 2012 were recincarcerated within three years, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
But Wine said he and Conrad have talked at length about the chief’s concerns, and he does agree that more needs to be done, starting with getting tougher on gun crimes involving convicted felons. Wine said roughly half of the people involved in assaults and murders last year had previous gun charges.
“As a result of that, our office is cracking down on cases where (a felon) is charged with possession of a handgun,” Wine said, adding that in the past that charge was often dismissed or amended down. “Now, “we are going to take those to trial and let’s see what the community says about that.”
Wine also suggested state lawmakers should look at increasing the minimum amount of prison time for some violent offenses, such as assaulting a police officer, from 20 percent to 85 percent of the sentence, before becoming eligible for parole.
“I understand the chief’s frustration,” Wine said. “We feel like we’re the hamster on the wheel, that we are just going round and round.”
A sweeping criminal justice bill in the Kentucky General Assembly would impose longer sentences before parole is an option. Senate Bill 120, sponsored by Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, seeks to change state law and require anyone convicted of second-degree manslaughter, for example, from being paroled until serving at least half of the sentence.
It also requires anyone convicted of second-degree manslaughter or reckless homicide in the death of a police officer or firefighter from getting paroled until at least 85 percent of a sentence has been fulfilled.
Prosecutors and police are also now working with federal officials to steer some cases to U.S. District Court, where defendants face far longer sentences than in Jefferson County’s court system
Conrad said the partnership is, in part, meant to tackle the exploding heroin problem.
As for some of the cases Conrad pointed out, Wine said Slaughter was 17 when he was arrested for the killing, and there were problems with that case, including one witness who was not 100 percent sure on his identification.
Wine agreed the men served a “short period of time,” but both Young and Slaughter were given good-time credit and released under Kentucky’s “Mandatory Re-entry Program,” which calls for certain offenders to be released early under the supervision of parole officers.
The program, designed in part to alleviate prison overcrowding, requires offenders to be released about eight months early under supervision of parole officers.
According to records from the state Department of Corrections, Slaughter received nearly two years off his sentence for “meritorious, educational and work” credit and two years and six months for “good time credit.” He was also credited for one year and eight months of time he spent behind bars before his conviction. Thus, Slaughter was eligible for the re-entry program in 2012.
“If things would have been done right the first time, this might have never happened,” said Wilbert Calhoun, brother of Elizabeth Draper, 43, one of the three people Slaughter is accused of shooting and killing.
Young, who also was convicted of forgery and sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison, received about five years of credit off his sentence and one year and three months for time served before his conviction.
A prosecutor called the 2011 beating an “incredibly violent” crime and was disappointed Young wasn’t convicted of murder.
Young was apologetic at his sentencing for the beating death of 29-year-old Raleigh Plenty, saying he “wasn’t thinking” and if he could go back and change what happened, he would.
Lisa Lamb, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the goal of the re-entry supervision program is to “improve public safety by steering inmates through a supervised transitional period during the final months of their sentence.”
Without the program, the inmates would be released within six to eight months without supervision or any assistance, she said in an email.
The program has “helped slow Kentucky’s exploding inmate population” and saved the state about $81 million, Lamb wrote.
For so called “non-violent” offenses, defendants only need to serve 20 percent of their prison sentence before they are eligible for parole. In the most violent crimes, defendants must serve 85 percent of the sentence.
State Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, has filed a “three-strike” bill in the General Assembly that would sentence anyone who has been convicted of three or more Class A or B felonies to life in prison with no chance of parole.
House Bill 70 has been assigned to the House’s Judiciary Committee.
“Once you get three independent of the most serious and violent conviction, to me that person has chosen not to be rehabilitated,” Watkins said in an interview. “They don’t need to be released into society again.”
But Wine said Kentucky already has a persistent felony offender law and the bill would affect very few people.
WDRB reviewed the criminal history of all defendants arrested for murder in 2016, and none would qualify for the three-strike law even if convicted again.
“Sometimes … it sounds good, but it doesn’t really solve any problems,” Wine said.
Conrad said he is in favor of inmates getting an education while in prison and should get some credit, but the end result of all the time sliced off of a sentence is “people coming back before the end of their sentence” without a change in attitudes of behavior.
“Has justice really been served?” Conrad asked.
He also cited the case of William Mason, who was convicted of multiple felonies in 2005, including drug trafficking, escape, possession of a firearm by a felon and receiving stolen property.
While he was sentenced to 18 years in prison, he was granted parole in 2010. After again being arrested for drug trafficking and possession of a handgun, Mason’s parole was revoked and he was sent back to prison.
But just a year later, Mason was released on parole again. And again he was arrested for possession of a handgun.
In 2015, Mason was given parole for a third time. He was arrested last June and charged with the murder of three people.
“We arrested three men whom we believe … murdered a total of seven people,” Conrad said of Mason, Young and Slaughter. “I would argue that would not have happened had they stayed in prison through the end of what we believe was their sentence.”
All three have pleaded not guilty and their current murder cases are pending.
“I believe the state legislature needs to take a good hard look at the state statues that focus on how sentences are calculated and how much time actually gets spent in prison,” Conrad said. “I’m afraid without these changes, we are going to see crime continue to be committed by people who should in fact still be in prison and we will be doomed to more of the same.”
Conrad said police have shared their concerns with the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council created by Gov. Matt Bevin.
The council has 23 members, including lawmakers from both parties, judges, police, prosecutors and others, and will study the state’s criminal code and suggest improvements.
“The system is what the system is, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be improved,” Conrad said.
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