‘A Huge Rash of Homicides’

Every occupation has its own slang, and for many years “NHI” was cop talk for No Humans Involved, meaning that a particular incident involved only dirtbags.

If both the offender and the victim were Adam Henrys (old cop slang for Ass Hole), it was NBD and NGL (No Big Deal and No Great Loss.)

Twenty-five years ago this month, five San Diego artists took that old slang for “No Humans Involved” and turned it into public works of art. They displayed billboards, an exhibition of photos, performances and a book – called “NHI.”

They focused on 45 homicide victims – all women and all prostitutes, transients and drug addicts.

Now here we are in 2017, and look how things have evolved. It isn’t just cops who treat certain casualties as no big deal.

A few days ago, an NPR reporter doing a story on the climbing murder rate in New Orleans interviewed a resident in a neighborhood near the scene of a shooting.

“(F)or the most part, these are people that are involved in activities with each other. It’s the bad people who are killing the bad people,” the resident said.

In other words, no humans involved.

NPR reporter Martin Kaste later in the story casually repeated the resident’s words, “(I)t’s ‘bad guys killing bad guys.’” (Although the victim in the above shooting was actually an innocent woman.)

Now it isn’t the cops who are writing off crime victims. It’s the media, politicians (local, state, national), social justice warriors working in nonprofits and public employees in bureaucracies dedicated to “human services.”

Earlier this month, more than 800 of these folks gathered for two days at the Salem, Ore., Convention Center for a Justice Reinvestment Summit and the 2017 What Works in Public Safety conference.

Gov. Kate Brown welcomed the crowd. Among the faces in the audience were Portland Police Chief Mike Marshman, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill and Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese.

Some of the speakers included a few high-profile names that have been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times and other media.

They talked about why women should rarely be sent to prison (“Ladies are different”), how prosecutors need to stop prosecuting (“I did away with the misdemeanor team entirely”) and how police need to stop arresting (“Make arrests the strategy of last resort. … Turn it into a positive outcome for the person coming into contact with a police officer.”)

Two speakers received standing ovations. The first was Khalil A. Cumberbatch, an ex-con from New York, who is now Manager of Trainings for JustLeadershipUSA. The organization’s goal is to cut America’s prison population in half by 2030.

Cumberbatch served six and a half years in prison for armed robbery. He described growing up in a neighborhood consumed by the crack cocaine epidemic.

“It was very normal for me to carry a firearm. The power of a firearm is very scary in many respects. … First time I learned how it can change someone’s life was when I had one stuck in my face,” he said. “Ultimately it led me to commit a robbery of two white men at Park Avenue and 96th. … It wasn’t what we took, it was who we took it from. … The judge sentenced us to prison because we were brown children.”

In his speech, Cumberbatch seized on the language of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights: “No more about us without us.” In other words, convicted felons should have a say in how the criminal justice system is run.

Oregon state Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) was among those who stood to applaud.

“It was wonderful to hear your perspective,” he told Cumberbatch.

Prozanski chairs the Senate Committee on Judiciary, and it jointly convened with the House Committee on Judiciary at the second day of the conference to participate.

The second speaker to receive a standing ovation was U.S. District Court Judge Frederic Block, who serves in the Eastern District of New York State.

He made news last year after a young black woman named Chevelle Nesbeth appeared before him. She was a college student studying education, hoping to become a teacher and maybe a principal someday, but she was caught transporting drugs.

“She didn’t realize her boyfriend put drugs (600 grams of cocaine) in her suitcase … she was an exemplary citizen … had a bright future,” Block said.

He had recently read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” which looked at the “collateral consequences” that follow felony convictions. The judge wondered what collateral consequences Nesbeth could face. He gave the probation officer and prosecutor on her case “a homework assignment” to find out.

The probation officer and prosecutor reported back: Under federal law, she could lose her school grants for two years, any commercial license for a year, revocation of her driver’s license for six months, no teaching certificate for five years, among others.

“They are punished severely after their sentence is completed,” Block said.

So he gave Nesbeth probation.

“Justice reinvestment” refers to the concept of sending fewer people to prison, then taking the money that would be saved and spending it on various services to help rehabilitate an offender and keep him or her out of trouble.

How’s it paying off in the real world?

A couple of weeks before the Justice Reinvestment Summit, in a hearing room at the state Capitol, the House Committee on Judiciary listened as Lane County DA Patty Perlow gave an overview of her office.

“We are making huge advantages in helping people get out of the criminal justice system. … Lane County has one of the lowest recidivism rates. … We have a robust treatment court (no longer called drug court). I attend all the graduations.”

Her office has someone on staff who helps convicted criminals find jobs. Even sex offenders have found work. Perlow added that some job seekers need to learn to read first.

The downside in her testimony: “We have had a huge rash of homicide,” she said.

Rep. Sherri Sprenger (R-Salem) congratulated Perlow on having the lowest recidivism rate in the prison system.

But Sprenger thought it curious that Lane County also had a “rash of homicides.” Isn’t that contradictory to a low rate of recidivism?

Perlow replied that her office lost a third of its staff in 2012.

“We weren’t filing charges. People were amassing significant criminal histories,” she said.

Perlow became district attorney after Alex Gardner resigned a year and a half ago to take an $18,000 pay cut and become a state police captain.

While still district attorney, Gardner appeared before legislators, who were working on a bill called HB 3194 – a centerpiece for justice reinvestment – and urged them not to reward offenders. He warned that it could lead to “a danger for us that we can’t manage.”

He was already having a problem with criminal defendants blowing off their court appearances. The most unrepentant, recidivist property criminals don’t want to be reformed, Gardner said.

“They hang out in Lane County and victimize people.”

Except for Sprenger, committee members didn’t seem curious about Perlow’s reference to rash of homicides.

Rep. Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) told Perlow she was a “shining example of what we are trying to do with justice reinvestment. … You’ve really changed the trajectory in Lane County.”

Normally the politicians and professionals who push justice reinvestment love data and stats. What were the numbers behind Lane County’s homicides?

I checked and it turns out that usually Lane County has about four homicides a year. In 2015, there were 15 homicides. In 2016, there were 11. In the first two months of this year, there have been three.

Among the victims in Lane County’s rash of homicides was Sarah Ann Coleman, a 23-year-old prep cook at Hop Valley Brewing Co. In July 2015, she interrupted a burglary at a Springfield house where she rented a room. She was sexually assaulted and strangled. Her sister found her body.

Last month, Kyle Dean Pfaff, 32, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, presumably without the possibility of parole.

Pfaff was a convicted felon and registered sex offender who lived in a camper trailer behind Coleman’s rental. She had told family members she didn’t like living on the same property as Pfaff and was making plans to move.

In the data-driven world of justice reinvestment, Coleman’s story would be dismissed as an anecdote.

It makes her too human.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

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