Applied Statistics

. . . where shooting someone in the head gets you four months in jail and a $1200 fine. Not a biggie, though–apparently it was only a “warning shot.”

More generally, I don’t know that prison is the solution to this sort of problem. If you put a violent criminal behind bars, he very well might be even more full of hatred and violence when he comes out. And, looking at it from the other way, it’s hard to imagine that the threat of a prison sentence is enough to deter someone from this sort of behavior. I mean, what kind of person shoots an unarmed man in the head on the street in front of his wife and young child? We’re already talking about someone who’s got serious, serious problems.

Perhaps my criminologist colleagues can tell me what the current thinking is on how to deal with violent psychopaths (or whatever is the current term that’s used for people like this). If it were up to me, I’d start by confiscating this guy’s gun and his car, and maybe installing some sort of beeper on him so that his probation officer knows where he is at all times. Maybe put some sort of tattoo on his hand with wording such as, “I’m a convicted violent offender. Do not give me a knife or gun at any time.” Maybe also let somebody shoot him the head once, but nothing serious, just a warning shot. Inn all seriousness, though, I don’t really see what’s gained by putting him in jail for 10 years, though. There have got to be ways of monitoring him to make sure he’s not a menace to society, without actually going through the expense of locking him up in a prison 24 hours a day. Arguments about the appropriate length of his sentence seem to miss the point.


  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    November 28, 2009

    What a mess – Asheville is actually a very beautiful mountain town with a great art and music community. It’s very popular with cyclists and the majority of the population is tolerant and understanding. I can assure you that the cycling community is up in arms about this insult of a punishment.

  2. #2 YvyYvz
    November 28, 2009

    The problem is that the expense of rehabilitating violent criminals, whether in jail or in a psychiatric institution, falls on the shoulders of innocent civilians. I’m in agreement with you that time is not really the issue here but the quality of the punishment. The best I could come up with is that offenders should be responsible to pay their own way through their rehabilitation by performing hard labor and, especially for violent criminals, sentences should not be set for specific periods; they should be released only once successfully rehabilitated.

  3. #3 John Johnson
    November 28, 2009

    While I don’t agree with the sentence (and I live in this town, so I got to hear a lot about the case), you have to be careful with the term “violent criminal” in connection with this crime. This man is not a career criminal (he had served his country and his city honorably up until he flew off the handle about a cyclist driving his three-year-old on a big road), and we have to be careful about making comments based on stereotypes.

  4. #4 Andrew Gelman
    November 28, 2009

    YvyYvz: Yes, the key point seems to be that the available options (fine and prison time) are just not flexible enough.

    John: I was using “violent criminal” as a description of someone who committed a violent crime. Perhaps you’re right, though, that the term implies that the person is a habitual criminal. It’s interesting how a simple description can lead to a possibly misleading characterization.

    P.S. Given the description, I wonder if the shooter has actually been involved in violent crime before. I mean, what kind of person goes around shooting people in the head and then calling it a “warning shot”??

  5. #5 ziel
    November 28, 2009

    Well technically he did not shoot him “in the head” – he shot _at_ his head and the bullet hit him _in_ the helmet. The reporting on this case isn’t very informative, but it sounds like he took the shot and ran off. Perhaps the grand jury thought that if he intended to murder him he’d have finished the job. It’s kind of like if you stomp on someone’s head and the victim only spends a night in the hospital, you probably get no more than a few months – but if the victim dies, you’re in for 20 years at least. A roll of the dice.

    I don’t think this will encourage any more violence on bicyclists – what are people supposed to think “Hey, cool, if I take a potshot at a cyclist and only graze his helmet, I’ll get a really light sentence, so what the hell…”

  6. #6 Nick
    November 28, 2009

    Well, the article indicated the cyclist wasn’t shot in the head, but in the helmet. Perhaps the judge works on the ‘no blood, no foul’ principle. That’s still pretty close for a warning shot.

  7. #7 RFM
    November 28, 2009

    So a county judge sentences a county or municipal employee to 4 months on a felony (Felony is defined as a crime which has a sentence of one year or more). In Chicago we would call that a “wired” or “fixed” case.

    So unless you are a municipal employee, walk carefully in that town.

  8. #8 Andrew Gelman
    November 29, 2009

    Ziel: I agree that it’s hard to see that a big prison term would be a deterrent effect, given that you’re dealing with someone so unstable as to shoot somebody like this in the first place. The real concern is keeping people like this off the street so they’re not a danger to others. There’s got to be a more efficient way of doing this by putting people away for 20 years.

  9. #9 ziel
    November 29, 2009

    Andrew, yes, I see your point. The process now is to keep sending these types of people (head stompers, road-ragers) back out there until they finally do some real, tragic damage, then put him away for life. Not very efficient. Your proposals don’t sound too crazy (except maybe the tatoo).

    Perhaps one positive side-effect of varioius states’ descent into bankruptcy will be more flexible solutions to criminal justice – like “I sentence you to 6 months in prison, 10 years loss of driving privileges, 20 years without guns, and 15 years of continuous electronic monitoring.” There might be more of this going on than we realize, the details of sentencing are often left out in reporting. Like will this guy actually be allowed to carry a gun during his probation?

  10. #10 Dylab
    November 29, 2009

    Totally unrelated to the post but having lived in Asheville I must admit I wished there weren’t bicyclists on the parkway.

  11. #11 zbicyclist
    November 30, 2009

    Dylab, you may wish there weren’t bicyclists on the parkway, but you didn’t shoot any.

    The sentence is a travesty; it’s hard to believe he would have gotten so light a sentence if he’d shot the man’s dog.

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