MINOT, N.D. — One of the greatest threats to sound policymaking is the sensational event that grabs the attention of the masses, drives public outrage, and ultimately results in many demands that somebody, somewhere, oughta do something.
Jupiter Paulsen, 14, was brutally murdered while skateboarding to her mother's house in Fargo, and let's not gloss over what "brutally" means in this context. She was strangled and stabbed over twenty times during an assault that lasted for nearly a half-hour.
After the assault, she fought for life for four days before passing away.
It's a fact that lands like a punch in the guts, not just for fathers and mothers who can't help but thinking of their own children while dwelling on what happened to Jupiter, but for human beings.
In 2017, he assaulted a corrections officer while in a juvenile detention facility.
In December 2020, he was charged with unlawful possession and discharge of a firearm. He fired his gun while in his apartment.
In January of this year, he was charged with trespassing after refusing to leave a convenience store.
Earlier this month, he was arrested for charges stemming from his involvement in a bar fight, including resisting arrest. He was free on probation during this incident, and authorities began looking for him after this arrest.
They didn't find him in time to save Jupiter. There are people working in law enforcement who will have to live the rest of their lives with that failure weighing on their hearts.
But let's be careful with our hindsight.
"This is the man — 22 years old with a lengthy criminal history and no permanent address — who was allowed to walk the streets of Fargo," The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead wrote in a lengthy editorial castigating law enforcement officials for this failure. "This is what can happen when the criminal justice system fails. And in this case, it failed repeatedly."
It's easy to connect dots after the fact. It's low-hanging fruit to claim that we should have known what we already know.
If a month ago I had described Kollie's criminal history to you, would you have been able to predict that he could be responsible for a brutal and murderous assault on another human being?
I think you would have told me he was troubled and in need of help, but not a monster.
The Forum and other critics have touted Kollie's escalating pattern of violence.
We're talking about a bar fight and resisting arrest, a trespass, and the negligent discharge of a firearm.
The first is misdemeanor violence, and the latter two charges aren't violent at all.
From this pattern, officials were to conclude they had a murderous person on their hands? Kollie was out on probation, and that decision was made because officials, including a judge, didn't believe he was a danger to the public. There are no facts currently in evidence to suggest they should have believed otherwise.
Criminal records like Kollie's are relatively common. Many people struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues, and during those struggles, many people behave erratically, putting themselves and others in danger.
It's a long leap from there to stabbing someone 20 times.
My intent is not to defend Kollie, who at this point remains innocent as he's not yet had his day in court, but to argue against an overreaction to his alleged crimes.
The public is, for completely understandable reasons, incensed about the murder of Jupiter Paulsen. I'm angry about it, too. But that sort of anger can drive demands for public policy changes that will do more harm than good.
North Dakota has made some long strides toward getting away from the lock-'em-up approach to criminal justice — Jeremy Turley just reported on some of that progress earlier this month — and I'm worried that Paulsen's murder may lead some to believe we've let the pendulum swing too far in that direction.
That we've become too soft on crime.
We need to resist that knee-jerk reaction because the throw-the-book-at-'em approach doesn't work.
In 2016 the Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice released a brief concluding, based on research, that prison sentences, and in particular long prison sentences, don't stop future crime. "Prison is an important option for incapacitating and punishing those who commit crimes, but the data show long prison sentences do little to deter people from committing future crimes," their report states.
According to other research, spending time in prison can create mental health issues or exacerbate them for those already facing those challenges.
At one point, Kollie spent a year in jail. He was incarcerated for nearly a month just before Paulsen was murdered.
Did the criminal justice system fail by failing to lock him up longer or by locking him up in the first place?
Are there things we could have done, aside from incarceration, to help this troubled person?
Is Kollie, if he is guilty of Paulsen's murder, a failure of the criminal justice system or the human service system?
These are the pertinent questions we should be asking, and hopefully, as some of the immediate horror from the attack on Paulsen fades, cooler heads can begin asking them.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.