The story of a convicted felon, arrested and charged with yet another crime, is all too familiar on our newscasts.
For some of them, jail time is just a routine – a small setback in their criminal lifestyle. So 9 On Your Side is asking the tough questions of those in power. Why do so many criminals end up back in our neighborhoods, leaving us vulnerable to more crime?
In his 22-year-career at the Pitt County Detention Center, Major Jeff Phillips has seen the evolution of criminals whose smaller offenses escalate over time.
"It goes from larceny, then it goes to selling drugs, robbing someone, and then they actually wind up in a charge that they can't get out of and the rest of their life is ruined and they're behind bars forever," Phillips says.
He says it's the norm to see the same offenders dozens of times for less serious crimes that have lighter punishments.
9 On Your Side asked him why it is so easy for them to slip back into old patterns.
"I think a lot of those patterns that are developed by so-called career criminals, they're developed through probably drug abuse, economic times, and learned behavior," he says. "A lot of these behaviors that you see are learned from generation to generation."
Former Pitt County District Attorney Clark Everett says, "I think that a lot of people live in the next fifteen minutes. If they didn't, I don't think they'd do these crimes. I mean some of these murders that you cover. Would you shoot somebody knowing that the rest of your life was going to be in prison?"
Everett says pressure to give probation instead of jail time, and watered down habitual felon laws sometimes lead to lighter sentencing for misdemeanors and low-level felonies.
"The system is designed to take the serious offenders and punish them very severely," he says. "But also trying to minimize the number of jail spaces that are needed, so in order to save jail spaces for these very serious people, you have to be lighter on the less serious."
Superior Court Judge Russell Duke says in most cases, his hands are tied by North Carolina's Structured Sentencing laws. They provide a method of punishing criminals that classifies offenders based on the severity of their crime and their prior criminal record.
"If the sentencing chart says, ‘Judge, you sentence them 8-10 months in this situation,' that's all I can give them," Duke says. "And they're going to be out in 8-10 months. And it's nothing I can do about it, nothing anybody can do about it, except the legislature."
Duke says if it were up to him, he'd implement what's called a "Quick Dip".
"I think that when people enter into criminal conduct in a minor offense, they ought to get a taste of the Pitt County Detention Center for three to four days," he says. "And we would not have as much recidivism because people would say, ‘Hey, I don't want any of that.'"
But sometimes several stints in jail just aren't enough to deter repeat offenders.
Lt. Limuel Capehart of the Pitt County Detention Center says once criminals are released, they're often faced with no real family structure or support – which makes it easy for them to slip back into old ways.
"It's like all hope is gone in one area, but they find joy and comfort when they deal with their fellow inmates or someone has similar charges like they have," he says. "In other words, ‘We're rejected out there, but we're accepted in here.'"
It helps explain why nearly half of all offenders are back behind bars within just three years of their release.
"Sometimes, that first time you make a mistake, it don't really dawn on you," says Linwood Mannn, an ex-offender. "It dawns on you while you're locked up, but when you get back out, and get back into society and still get up with the wrong crowd of folks, it will pull you right back into that again. If you've been to prison, you feel like you're a little bit smarter this time. But it doesn't work like that."
It's a lesson Linwood Mann learned the hard way. More than 30 years ago, he started down the wrong path.
"I wasn't ever addicted to drugs," he says. "But I was addicted to selling them and making the money. To try to make ends meet because I was married and my job just wasn't doing it."
After serving time in prison, and rotating between city streets and city jail for more than 20 years, Mann decided to make a change.
"I saw it coming into chaos," he says. "You know, I just seen everything going down for me, going downhill. And my kids, I just couldn't let that work like that because of my kids, and me, and my family."
Now the 53-year-old is making an honest living as a painter. It's a happy ending for someone who, statistically, really didn't stand a chance.
But not all stories end like his. So what turns someone into a career criminal?
"I think the self-centeredness," says Duke. "They're convinced that the world has mistreated them. They're angry. They're hostile. And they say, ‘The law be damned! I'm going to do what I want to do!'"
Pitt County Public Defender Bert Kemp explains, "If you're convicted of one crime, it wraps around the individual like a snowball. And then the snowball becomes layered and then you roll down the hill faster. It becomes packed. It becomes hardened. And your chances to change that person's disposition becomes less and less. And all of a sudden, that snowball just falls off the cliff into the abyss, and that's incarceration – maybe for two years or maybe for 30."
Kemp says several factors stand in the way of an offender successfully re-entering society: the absence education, employment, money and family support. And often, he says, a drug addiction.
"Veterans have a hard time re-entering into society and they're heroes," he says. "Imagine someone coming out of jail as a felon. They're going to have a real difficult time to re-enter and get a job."
He continues, "Because there's a lack of family structure, they will find that in other places such as gangs, drugs, just living on the edge of what's criminal and what's not criminal."
Duke dubs that lack of family structure "Father-less-ness."
"Until we solve the problem of fathers, basically, sperm donors in my opinion, leaving their children, until we solve that problem, until it's recognized by the community, we're going to have crime and it's going to escalate," Duke says. "And there's nothing the court system can do about it except put people in prison."
It's a theory that rings true for Mann, whose mother and father both left him when he was just three months old. His grandparents stepped in to raise him, despite their own financial struggles.
But Mann says a tough childhood is no excuse for him, or anyone else who chooses a life of crime.
"I don't blame nobody but me," he says. "Mostly, because I could've done better and after I realized that, that's when I started doing better."
So does Mann think there's hope for other people with criminal records like him?
"Yes, ma'am," he says. "They just got to help themselves though. You've got to put that little effort in yourself. You put that effort in and someone else will come along and help you out."
To ease the transition back into society, offenders can take the initiative to join a variety of re-entry programs. The one Mann completed nearly 10 years ago is called Strive, a program that boasts a recidivism rate of just 12 percent.
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