I-Team: More burglars given 'get out of jail' card

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by Jeremy Rogalski / Chief Investigative Reporter

khou.com

Posted on December 9, 2010 at 11:04 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 10 at 7:47 AM

HOUSTON --An I-Team analysis of thousands of Harris County court cases reveals more and more burglars are avoiding prison time since a new district attorney took office and eight new judges took the bench.

It's not just your belongings that a burglar steals -- it's also your peace of mind. But what’s worse is what can happen when the thief is caught, but doesn't get thrown in jail.

On August 6, an admitted burglar attacked northwest Houston resident Tony Barcelona on his motorized wheelchair as he rolled to the neighborhood corner store. Barcelona, a stroke victim left partially paralyzed and unable to speak, had become a crime victim.

"It is wrong,” said his wife, Jessie Barcelona. "His face was all bloody, his shirt was bloody."

"It scared me so bad because I thought, 'what in the world could have happened,'" she added.

But the I-Team discovered it never would have happened if the justice system hadn't handed his alleged attacker what some call a "get out of jail free card" just months before.

That’s when Ruben Henry pleaded guilty to a home burglary, but received what's known as deferred adjudication. It’s a form of probation which gives the offender a second chance. If they stay out of trouble, they stay out of prison.

"Why? Why would you do that?" said Jesse Barcelona. “Why wouldn't you keep him in jail where he belongs, where he's not able to get out and hurt somebody?"

But after analyzing thousands of cases, the I-Team found that keeping admitted burglars out of prison has become much more common since the start of 2000, when a new district attorney took office and eight new district court judges took the bench. In the 18 months before the changeover, one out of eight felony burglary cases ended with deferred adjudication. But in the 18 months after the changes, the rate nearly doubled to one out of four.

And criminologists say burglary is often a gateway crime to rape, robbery and murder.

Just ask a woman who was working at a Subway sandwich shop, when a group of armed men stormed the store demanding money.

"Please just don't kill me, because I’ve got a family,” the woman recalled saying during the Jan. 2 ordeal. She asked not to be identified.

"Me and my friend, we could have died that night," the victim said.

But one of the suspects charged would never have been there that day, if he hadn't gotten deferred adjudication nine months earlier for a home burglary.

"It's a slap on the hand to the criminal, it's a slap in the face to the police officer, and it's an insult to every citizen out there,” said Ray Hunt, Vice President of the Houston Police Officers Union.

"They need to get prison time," he said.

And Hunt could not believe what else the I-Team found.

"In Harris County, we're giving people second, third, fourth, fifth, six chances,” Hunt said.

Consider the case of Edward Runner. Police arrested him on March 16, 2009, for breaking into a pharmacy in the 500 Block of Tidwell and stealing narcotics. Runner’s rap sheet included four prior building burglaries, dating back to 1975. But on number five, he received deferred adjudication.

Then there’s the case of career car-burglar Rosh Anthony Davis, who was convicted six times for burglary of a motor vehicle. But yet on number seven, he received a so-called get out of jail free card.

"They're going to go out and break into more cars, they're going to break into more homes, more businesses," Hunt said.

So we wanted to know, who is giving the long leash? Our first stop was District Attorney Pat Lykos.

"We've recommended deferred adjudication in 8.3 percent of all the burglaries," Lykos said.

The records do show that more than 90 percent of the time, it is the judge who made the decision to defer.

"We can't prevent someone from pleading guilty and having the court assess punishment,” Lykos said. “It drives me insane sometimes."

The I-Team discovered some judges stand out from the rest, like Kevin Fine in the 177th and Shawna Reagin in the 176th District Criminal Courts. Under Judge Fine, the rate of burglary deferred adjudications grew by 27 percent, and under Judge Reagin, it jumped by 35 percent.

Both declined to go on camera, but in written statements, both said deferred adjudication allows them to order offenders into drug treatment to deal with what is often the source of the criminal behavior. Both judges also said deferred adjudication permits them to order the maximum possible prison sentence allowed.

Judge Fine added that most of the burglary defendants he had granted deferred adjudication have completed it successfully and have not reoffended. Judge Reagin also said defendants granted deferred are required to pay restitution to victims, and that going to trial with every burglary defendant would overload the courts.

But not everyone buys into that sentencing philosophy.

"We'll arrest burglars over and over and over, and it's the same ones,” said Hunt.

The veteran beat cop speaks for many more on the street.

“It’s not fair to the police, and it’s not fair to the public,” said Hunt.

It's why HPD has focused more on the front end -- prevention -- to help Houstonians with something they can control: How not to become a victim if an offender violates their probation.

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