DA's hard line on prison crime getting results

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   To a prison inmate serving a lengthy sentence for rape or robbery, losing privileges for smuggling drugs into a cell amounts to a slap on the wrist -- a risk many are willing to take.
   When District Attorney General Joe Crumley took office Sept. 1, 1998, he spoke with staff members of Northeast Correctional Complex and the Carter County Work Camp and agreed to prosecute cases which previously had been handled administratively.
   "People were losing things like good and honor credit or some of their privileges. The average person that's in the penitentiary has violated probation after probation after house arrest after probation, and just taking privileges away really doesn't send a message to them," Crumley said Tuesday.
   "But when they get additional time consecutive to their existing time, it lets them know that if they want to get back out in society, they're at least going to have to not break the law while they're in prison."
   Charges presented to grand juries in Carter and Johnson counties since Crumley was elected have resulted in 56 indictments. Of those, prosecutors have netted 39 convictions either through trial or plea bargain. Those include a recent conviction for first-degree murder, two for facilitation of first-degree murder, two second-degree murders, one facilitation of second-degree murder, one voluntary manslaughter and seven aggravated assaults. Seven cases are still pending.
   "The biggest area of concentration besides crimes of violence has been introduction of contraband into a penal facility," Crumley said, which has resulted in 26 convictions.
   "Convictions for crimes committed in prison are routinely run consecutive to existing sentences and many of the inmates are eligible for higher ranges of punishment than generally go through the courts," he said.
   During a recent four-day trial in Johnson County, Assistant District Attorneys Ken Baldwin and Anthony Clark won a first-degree murder case which could lead to a life sentence for a Northeast Correctional Complex inmate.
   "The public doesn't really understand the reality of life in a prison," Baldwin said. "This was a terrible murder where someone decided to take the victim's cigarettes and stabbed him 67 times" with a shank, or homemade knife.
   Baldwin said it is difficult to get witnesses to testify in such cases because of the "code of silence" that exists among inmates. "They risk their lives if they break that code."
   The district attorney's office was especially pleased with the Johnson County verdict, according to Crumley. "The victim was serving a lengthy sentence for sex offenses and there is always the risk the jury won't take the death of an inmate as seriously as they would a regular citizen.
   "Obviously we've always prosecuted crimes of violence," he said, "but right now we've got more outstanding homicides in Johnson County than anywhere in our district, largely because of the penitentiary.
   "As long as we remain aggressive in the prosecution of crimes within the penitentiary, we are sending a message to the inmates that they cannot expect to return to society until they learn that breaking the law will not be tolerated."
   Figures presented in the survey conducted by Crumley's office do not cover contract state prisoners in jail in Carter, Johnson and Washington counties, Crumley said.