Red states lead way on de-emphasizing prisons
Not so long ago, countless universities hired faculty members without bothering to ask if they had ever been convicted of a felony.
It did not seem possible to provosts and deans that an accomplished professor interviewing for a job could have a violent past.
All of that changed with a man named Paul Krueger, right. An assistant professor of education at Penn State University, Krueger seemed like so many of his colleagues — mild-mannered, serious, hard-working.
Krueger may have been all of those, but he had a record unlike anyone else on Penn State’s campus of more than 40,000 students.
At age 17, Krueger shot and killed three fishermen in Texas. He was convicted of murder and served more than 12 years in prison.
After being paroled, Krueger received a doctorate and pursued the life of an academic. He told no one in authority about his conviction.
Kruger’s criminal record became public knowledge when he was 55. Then Penn State cut its ties with him.
“The university and Dr. Krueger both recognize that his ability to carry out his responsibilities effectively ... has been compromised in light of the revelations about his history,” Penn State said in its official statement.
For a while, Krueger’s case sparked a national discussion about crime and punishment.
He appeared to be rehabilitated, productive and unlikely to commit another crime. But the horror of what he did outweighed what he seemed to have become.
Now a new debate on how best to keep the public safe — at the lowest cost — is under way.
What’s different today is that deep-red states such as Texas are the model for revising criminal codes to de-emphasize prisons.
Jerry Madden, a former state representative in Texas, testified recently before a New Mexico legislative subcommittee about being smarter in combating crime.
Madden, educated at West Point, had no experience in the criminal justice system. As chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee, he examined crime and punishment with the analytical mind of an engineer, which he is.
He said the turning point in Texas came when his committee resisted budget plans to spend at least $2 billion more to add 17,700 prison beds.
Madden, a Republican, connected with members of his own party by arguing that legislators would better protect public safety and public dollars with a different formula. He called for more mental health and alcohol treatment programs instead of more prisons.
Madden’s approach proved persuasive in a state that leads the nation in executions. No one could say that Texas legislators were soft on crime. This enabled them to start making decisions that might appear less punitive but would be more effective in stopping repeat
“The red states are leading the way on this,” said New Mexico state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, right, D-Albuquerque.
Maestas and state Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, are cochairing a subcommittee that they hope will make deep and meaningful changes in New Mexico’s criminal justice system in 2015, after a year of work and study.
Maestas and Torraco are former prosecutors. Both say New Mexico should be smarter in crafting its criminal laws.
Maestas says someone convicted of second-degree murder now can face a sentence of zero to 15 years. But a drug user who stupidly packages his stash in a few Baggies faces a prison sentence of 18 years because he looks like a distributor.
Maestas says he wants to see New Mexico do a better job of prioritizing cases so that the might of the justice system is aimed at violent criminals.
He, Torraco, right, and other legislators will look at overhauling a criminal justice system that they say functions like an ineffective robot.
“We’ve been doing the same thing for decades,” Maestas said. “Now the goal is to put the public interest ahead of policy-makers’ interests.”
Paul Krueger’s case started a debate 10 years ago. Another round is under way in New Mexico.