The Ones Who Got Away, A New Moral Panic

Fear.  The title is calculated to cause fear. The numbers are calculated to cause fear. And worst of all, the obligatory anecdotes are calculated to cause fear. And loathing. And anger. All of which give rise to the possibility that a new moral panic is in the making, that 186,000 felons are on the loose and no one can be bothered to stop them.

What’s surprising in that this isn’t being spread by an association of prosecutors, a conservative political action committee or wild-eyed moms scared to death for their children.  This comes from Brad Heath at USA Today, who has long been one of the most thoughtful voices in the mainstream media on criminal justice issues.

In the opening part of the series, a sex offender from Philly takes a bus to Miami, and…well, you’ll see:

Terlecky got away by catching a Greyhound bus to Miami.

The police in his new hometown know that Terlecky is a fugitive, and they have tried repeatedly to return him to Philadelphia — both before and after he was convicted of having sex with two other underage girls in Florida. As recently as November, police handcuffed Terlecky and called Philadelphia authorities to tell them their fugitive had been found.

But just like every time before, the authorities in Philadelphia refused to take him back.

The anecdote has all the makings of a parent’s nightmare, but it gets worse. In the second installment of the series, it goes from sex with underage girls to, you guessed it, murder!?!

Before they killed him, the intruders bound Frederick Tucker’s hands and feet with duct tape, beat him with a pistol and seared his hips and neck with the tip of a screwdriver they heated on his kitchen stove.

Then one of them shot Tucker in the chest.

The crime was stunning for its brutality, but in another way it was remarkably ordinary: One of the murderers — the man Tucker’s family is convinced orchestrated the crime — was a fugitive whom the police in Philadelphia repeatedly allowed to go free because he had left their state.

If you don’t think too hard about it, it almost seems as if the laxity of Philly prosecutors is responsible for the murder by leaving this “fugitive” on the street to kill.  And that’s exactly where Heath goes:

Tens of thousands of felony suspects get away as easily, because police and prosecutors across much of the United States will not pursue them beyond their state borders. For many, that decision is a license to commit new crimes, a USA Today investigation found. With no one chasing them, unwanted fugitives went on to rape, kidnap, rob banks and kill, often as close as in the state next door.

I suspect that Brad’s purpose in writing this series is to show how prosecutors and cops aren’t doing their job of protecting us from bad dudes by letting them escape prosecution by hopping a bus.  But the offshoot isn’t just that prosecutors will put more money toward rounding up the fugitives, but that they will seek higher bail or detention, and judges will be more amenable to it, to prevent them from fleeing in the first place.

The panic that will be generated by the idea that 186,000 rapists and murders are strolling the streets immune from prosecution is a powerful incentive to keep everyone locked up.  After all, if they’re all in jail, they can’t rape and pillage.  Problem solved.

But this was an opportunity to bring logic and reason to bear on a situation, and instead it was turned into a tear-jerker by recounting the tales of horror and misery.  Given the rather select group involved, individuals charged with felonies, it’s hardly surprising that an investigation will reveal that some went on to commit other, far worse, crimes.  If only the Minority Report was real, another potential fix to the moral panic this could cause.

But the reality is that there are so many felonies, so many arrests, so many prosecutions, that the failure of local prosecutors to seek extradition reflects the fact that these are suspects, still presumed innocent, of crimes so factually minor as to be unworthy of the cost and effort of extradition.  It is a condemnation of a system that turns far too many people into suspected felons who, when a price is put on their heads to secure their return, aren’t worth it.

It’s easy to come up with a handful of anecdotes from this bunch of people.  But what of the 185,950 who didn’t rape, murder, go on to commit another crime, and present no danger to anyone?  Where is their story?

There is a theory belying the choice of whom to extradite.  If they are dangerous felons, then prosecutors will spend the money to get them. But the fact that they go on to commit worse crimes later can’t be foretold by an earlier arrest for a minor offense. Maybe, if we didn’t make felonies out of everything, there wouldn’t be so many fugitive felons? But the fact that a few go on to commit terrible crimes is not a rational basis to assume that everyone does so.

More importantly, if a minor suspected felon turns out to be a worse dude than anyone realized, then there will be law enforcement and prosecution wherever he ends up to address his conduct, just as there would be had he not been a fugitive.  In other words, he’ll be dealt with for what he does when he does it, not pre-emptively for some other, prior, relatively inconsequential offense in anticipation of future crime.  And that’s a perfectly rational perspective. Deal with what’s happening now, rather than what could happen in the future.

This isn’t an apologia for suspected felons who flee.  Frankly, it shouldn’t be allowed and it shouldn’t happen.  They can’t return to the jurisdiction where they’re wanted, and the incentive to not abscond is built into the fact that they don’t know, can’t possibly know, whether or not the jurisdiction will seek their extradition if they’re caught.  And that’s as it should be. If prosecutors and law enforcement decided tomorrow to collect up every wanted person, it would be an appropriate thing to do, the cost notwithstanding.

But to present the problem as a moral panic for mothers everywhere is to pander to irrational fear and to promote a plethora of unintended, and enormously problematic, consequences that will do grave harm to the system and the rights of those arrested.  Do we really want every person arrested to be held on a million dollars bail?  You know, just because?

At a time when people are coming to realize that we have so many laws, so many regulations, that we are committing three felonies a day, is it helpful to characterize every accused felon as a likely rapist and murderer?  Is there not enough fear and loathing of the accused already?

The notion that prosecutors and law enforcement should not let defendants abscond with impunity isn’t a bad one at all, but the use of horrific anecdotes that smear all defendants in the process and raise the old fears that every defendant is a breath away from raping and murdering, and deserve to be treated like animals and locked away forever, is not the solution.  As worthwhile as it may be to show how prosecutors are ignoring fugitives, it’s wrong to paint the fugitives as the personification of evil so that the cure is worse than the disease.

Yet, there it is, in USA Today, raising all the old fears that gave rise to so many of the problems of the system.  Brought to you courtesy of a writer who really ought to know better.

4 comments on “The Ones Who Got Away, A New Moral Panic

  1. Bill

    I guess it’s implicit in your post, but the odds of getting killed by a fugitive have to be really low. The odds of getting killed by one that got away have to be even lower – as in just about zero. It’s terrible when it happens, but so is getting eaten by a shark or alligator.

  2. Fubar

    SHG wrote:

    At a time when people are coming to realize that we have so many laws, so many regulations, that we are committing three felonies a day, is it helpful to characterize every accused felon as a likely rapist and murderer? Is there not enough fear and loathing of the accused already?

    Isn’t this far too soft on criminals who feloniously fail to register a franchise before sale in accordance with California’s Corporations Code Section 31110 et seq? They’ could flee the state and fail to register many more than three franchises a day in unwitting jurisdictions. What they might do to innocent kids who just want to open a lemonade stand is unspeakable.

  3. John Neff

    If you don’t go and get them you save money because normally you send two deputies but in addition you don’t have to incarcerate and prosecute them. Another thing they have been accused of is having the suspect held in someone else’s jail until they are ready to process the case (a cuckoo’s yegg).

Comments are closed.