11 June 2009

Prison As Adult Day Care

A teenager who has profound mental disabilities was sentenced to 100 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges in a sex abuse case involving his 6-year-old neighbor.

Aaron Hart, 18, of Paris, was arrested and charged after a neighbor found him fondling her stepson in September. The teen pleaded guilty to five counts, including aggravated sexual assault and indecency by contact, and a jury decided his punishment. . . .

Hart has an IQ of 47 and was diagnosed as mentally disabled as a child. He never learned to read or write and speaks unsteadily.

Despite being a target of bullies, he was courteous, well-behaved and earned money by doing chores for neighbors, supporters said. His parents say he'd never acted out sexually.


Lamar County Judge Eric Clifford decided to stack the sentences against Hart after jurors settled on two five-year terms and three 30-year terms, The Dallas Morning News reported Wednesday. The judge said neither he nor jurors liked the idea of prison for Hart but they felt there was no other option.

"In the state of Texas, there isn't a whole lot you can do with somebody like him," Clifford said. . . .

Jurors said they sent the judge notes during deliberations in February, asking about alternatives to prison, but didn't get a clear answer. They believed the judge would order concurrent sentences, jurors said.

District Attorney Gary Young said he sympathized with Hart's situation but stands by his decision to prosecute on five counts. Prosecutors commonly pursue several charges for a single incident to see which the jury will support.

Young said a diversion program was not an option since the law doesn't allow that for serious felonies.

From here via the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog.

There are problems with this case, which, unsurprisingly, arises in Texas, which is known for its harsh criminal justice system.

Is an eighteen year old with an IQ of 47 capable of meaningfully participating in the plea bargain process and assisting in his own defense? Is he really capable of knowing right from wrong in this crime that is fundamentally about understanding social boundaries? Can he ever be so cupable that a sentence of what amounts to life in prison without possibility of parole can ever be appropriate?

Aaron Hart would not have been constitutionally eligible for the death penalty, even for murder. Is life without parole, which is what this sentence amounts to, really constitutionally appropriate for someone mentally on a par with or just a couple of years of normal development ahead of the six year old he was convicted of assaulting? If Hart had been nine years old, instead of eighteen, he would have been tried in juvenile court and probably wouldn't have received a sentence of more than twelve years -- indeed, it probably would have been shorter.

Is it appropriate that we have a sentencing system that gives so much weight to a distinction between concurrent and consecutive sentencing decisions by a judge? Is it appropriate that the jury be charged with making a decision in a half-informed manner?

Did the victim and his family really want this consequence when they reported the crime? Would they have reported it at all if they knew where it might lead?

What does this mean for Aaron Hart and his family? In some ways, it makes life easier for them. His family would have had a huge economic burden caring for Aaron Hart for his entire life that has now been dumped into the lap of the Department of Corrections in Texas. Aaron Hart would probably never have been capable of supporting himself economically; he also is unlikely to have married or had children.

Aaron Hart's inability to be capable of engaging in socially acceptable conduct may have made him an ongoing risk to the public in a way that other more culpable individuals may not have been. He is never going to learn job skills and get a GED. He is never going to really understand the nuances of social convention and criminal law. No drug or education program can change that fact. He clearly is capable of making positive social contributions, but he also has limits.

Still, why doesn't Texas have other options for retarded people who can't function normally in society? The jury clearly understood that Aaron Hart needs to be institutionalized, but that prison wasn't the most appropriate choice. He needs more guidance than most, but isn't a lost cause either.

Texas appears to be content to use prisons as adult day care centers. Almost all states use prison as their biggest financial commitment to dealing with mental health issues. This does not make common sense or economic sense, but this is what they do. Howard Witt at the Chicago Tribune sheds more light on the case:

The boy he confessed to molesting is mentally retarded as well.

What's more, the judge and the jury never heard any expert testimony about Hart's diminished mental functioning, his capacity to understand his Miranda rights or his ability to assist in his own defense, because his defense attorney never subpoenaed any experts.

And since he has been in jail, Hart himself has been repeatedly raped, according to his parents. The first assault, allegedly by an inmate who is serving a far shorter sentence of just 8 years for sexual indecency with a child, so disturbed the alleged rapist's mother that she called Hart's parents to apologize.

"I have nightmares thinking about Aaron in prison and how he is going to survive in there," said Robert Hart, Aaron's 70-year-old father. "He's the type of kid who his whole life people beat him up, took stuff from him, and he wouldn't defend himself. He can't read or write. He can't hardly talk."

Hart's complex case is threatening to once again bring unwelcome outside scrutiny to the functioning of the criminal justice system in Paris.

The town of 26,000 drew national civil rights protests in 2007 following a Tribune report contrasting the judicial treatment of a 14-year-old black girl, who was sentenced to up to 7 years in youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at her high school, with the treatment of a 14-year-old white girl, who was given probation for the more serious crime of arson. More racial tensions erupted last year after the slaying of a 24-year-old black man, allegedly at the hands of two whites.

This time, though the issues are not racial—both Hart and his victim are white—black civil rights leaders in Paris are still advocating on Hart's behalf, because of their concerns that he was not treated fairly by the local justice system.

A spokesman for the local prosecutor, Gary Young, acknowledged that more serious sexual offenders have received much shorter sentences.

"You don't want to send [Hart] to prison for life, but you cannot put him back on the street and worry about what he may do to some other kid," Allan Hubbard, victim's advocate for the district attorney, told the local newspaper, the Paris News. "Speaking for myself and not for the district attorney's office, this illustrates the need for some system between probation and life in prison for someone like this."

Hart's court-appointed defense attorney, Ben Massar, said he had recommended that Hart plead guilty only because he thought his client would be sentenced to probation.

"To me, this was a punishment case," Massar said. "And usually, in order to gain the benefit of more lenient punishment, like the probation we were hoping for, juries and judges like it when people plead guilty and take responsibility for their actions."

The judge who stacked Hart's prison terms to run consecutively for 100 years, Eric Clifford, said he's still agonizing over his decision, which was driven by his concern that Hart poses a danger to society.

"It was a sad situation. I was about to cry. The jury was crying," Clifford said. "Everybody looked at everybody like, 'What the hell do we do?' The only option we were presented was prison. We don't have any facilities in the state of Texas for any type of care for somebody like that. That's the problem. It's a terrible problem. I don't know what you do with him other than what we did."

On Tuesday, Hart's newly appointed appellate attorney is scheduled to go before Clifford with a motion seeking a new trial on the grounds that Hart could not have understood any of the legal proceedings for his arrest, guilty plea and sentencing.

Clifford sounded like he's inclined to grant the motion. "I approved [the appellate attorney] to hire all the experts he wanted on competency," he said. "I said, 'Whatever you need moneywise, I will sign the order.' If they can work something out on that appeal, I'm not going to be hard on them."

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