When The Journal posted the breaking news of the death of Merle Forbes of Platteville and the arrest of Timmy Lansing Johnson Jr. Friday, one of the comments said: “I guess that Platteville is not Mayberry.”
This might seem harsh from someone who’s lived here for just two years, but: When was this ever Mayberry?
This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of UW–Platteville student Kathleen Moan, shot to death by her would-be suitor. In 1990, Grant County Deputy Sheriff Tom Reuter, who grew up near Platteville, was shot to death while checking out what appeared to be a disabled tractor on the side of a road. And within the past two years, we’ve witnessed the murders of three little boys and their unborn sister by their father and uncle, as well as the murders of three people in the Town of Wayne in what apparently was a completely random act.
Those are the murders. On a lesser scale of severity (though their victims might dispute that), there is Robert VanNatta, who got 15 years in prison for charges that could have gotten him 907½ years in prison. Last week, Platteville police arrested Drew Montana Striegel of Rice Lake, who despite being 20 years old had already managed to earn two violent felony convictions. Two weeks earlier, police arrested Brandon Loken, who faces felony drug charges for allegedly manufacturing methamphetamine yards away from St. Mary Catholic Church and the O.E. Gray school building. I don’t mean to prejudge the journey of Donald Tweedy through the criminal justice system, but if you’re being charged with felonies before your 18th birthday, that’s not an optimistic predictor of your future. And this newspaper unfortunately includes stories of people with extensive criminal records who while out on bond or bail for other alleged criminal activities, or recently after getting released from incarceration for previous criminal activities, get arrested for more alleged criminal activities.
One question being asked repeatedly is why Johnson — who was due in Lafayette County Circuit Court this morning on two car theft charges and eight counts of felony bail jumping — was allowed out of jail in the first place. Johnson was sentenced to five years probation, including 24 days in jail, on felony bail jumping, bribery of a public official, felony driving and operating a vehicle without consent, misdemeanor taking and driving a vehicle without consent, misdemeanor bail jumping, disorderly conduct, fraud on a taxicab operator as a repeater, and two counts of resisting or obstructing an officer. The answer, I suppose, is that none of them are considered violent crimes, though those last two charges were for an incident in the Grant County Jail.
You may have read commentaries about how the U.S. has one of the highest prison populations in the world, and how we incarcerate so many people, and how we don’t use non-prison sentencing alternatives enough. That makes for an interesting argument, with some validity in some instances. It is an inarguable fact, however, that, based on the alleged facts, if Johnson hadn’t been let out of jail Thursday, Merle Forbes wouldn’t have died Thursday overnight.
It’s easy to second-guess the decisions of those who prosecute and determine punishment for criminals. But it’s also easy to place the criminal justice system on a pedestal and dismiss the questions of those whose taxes pay for our criminal justice system by asserting they don’t know what it’s really like.
It seems, at least to someone who follows the activities of police and the court system as part of his job responsibilities, that most of the people who end up in the court system aren’t there for the first time. Yes, Johnson, Loken and Striegel are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But what each has in common is that each has a substantial criminal record for people who are, in order, 25, 25 and 20, regardless of what happens in their respective court cases.
I’d suggest more police if I thought that would solve the crime problem, but I’m not sure it would. The number of school shootings, despite the multitude of laws making school shootings (and often the firearms used in those shootings) illegal, demonstrates that criminals are not generally deterred by laws; they’re only deterred by the probability of getting caught. Those of us who respect and generally follow the law deserve to be safe from the bad guys, and yet not intimidated by, as you see in some areas (not here), police outfitted like an invasion force instead of as peace officers.
I’d suggest Wisconsin institute the death penalty, except that one of the reasons to not have the death penalty is that to be effective as a deterrent, it would have to be applied often, and to crimes most people don’t think of as capital crimes. Wisconsin was the next to last state to legalize concealed-carry of firearms, and you can wonder why more people don’t concealed-carry given what appears to be an increase in what you might call infamous crime, regardless of what crime rates claim is happening.
I wrote a column like this after the death of the Thoresons in 2013. At the time, I said I didn’t have an answer for all of this. I still don’t.