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A "Model Inmate"

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Ken Armstrong and Jennifer Sullivan of The Seattle Times have this story on Byron Scherf, a Washington inmate accused of strangling to death a 34-year-old female correctional officer in a prison chapel over the weekend.  (Prior post here.)  But first, a brief history of the inmate whom a state report labeled "an easy keeper" who took advantage of "every self-help program available":

1978:  Convicted of attacking a 16-year-old girl at knifepoint.
1980:  Release on parole.
1981:  Kidnapped a waitress and brought her to an abandoned house.  After binding and raping her, he covered her in gasoline and set her on fire.  She managed to escape through a window.
1981:  Staff psychiatrist concluded his problems were beyond treatment: "I feel that even after treatment for his rape tendencies he would still be of strong enough anti-social personality that he would continue to break the law."
1993:  After Scherf completed "self-help" programs, obtained an associate degree, and got married, a psychiatrist reported that Scherf "has benefited from his incarceration. . . His rehabilitation is as complete as it could ever be."  Released on parole.
1995:  Kindapped and raped a real estate agent.  Sentenced to LWOP as a three-strike offender.
2007:  The state's Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board (which makes decisions about releasing certain groups of offenders) wrote Scherf was "quite clearly one of the most dangerous individuals under the board's jurisdiction. . . Incapacitation for public safety is the only responsible decision."
2009:  Washington Department of Corrections downgraded his status from high-security risk to medium security, after Scherf served eight years without receiving a prison disciplinary infraction. 

A parole board's decision to release an offender is tremendous, and Monday morning quarterbacking is largely unproductive.  But it is notable that Scherf's rehabilitative progress appears to have been measured significantly by his behavior inside, i.e. his participation in self help classes and lack of prison infractions.  But what about his behavior outside the confines of prison?  Scherf's pattern of conduct on the outside world demonstrates that some prisoners - perhaps the most intelligent ones - are able to mask their true selves with an "easy keeper" facade.  Their behavior beyond the constant surveillance of prison officials is perhaps more probative of their risk to the public upon early release.

In California, when denying an inmate discretionary early release, the parole board must point to specific evidence showing the inmate's current dangerousness to society.  The circumstances of the underlying offense standing alone are not enough.  (In re Lawrence, 44 Cal.4th 1181 (2008))  Had Scherf been a California inmate eligible for discretionary parole, he might very well have been granted early release.  His conduct in prison demonstrated efforts to advance his education, he attended therapy classes, and fostered personal relationships.  The parole board may have found it difficult to link his violent and predatory pattern of conduct with his current threat to society.*  Manipulative inmates such as Scherf have an opportunity to fly under the radar.  And innocent victims - such as the real estate agent he raped in 1995 - pay the penalty.

The same concerns are true with respect to the DOC's decision to downgrade Scherf's security status.  True, he had managed to stay infraction-free for a period of time, but what of the previous reports diagnosing him as beyond treatment and "one of the most dangerous individuals under the board's jurisdiction"?  An inmate's good behavior while in prison should not wash away the gravity of what got him there in the first place.  Incarceration is just as much about punishment as it is a chance to prove oneself a "model inmate."


* This is said without the benefit of reviewing Scherf's entire file.

1 Comment

So lessee, this guy attacks a 16 year old girl at knifepoint, then gets out, and then rapes a woman and tries to kill her by setting her on fire, and he spends what, 12 years in jail after that? We constantly hear about how barbaric the death penalty is--what of the barbarism of foisting such a predator on society?

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