Scratching the Bitch

Joseph Paiva was born defective, but prosecutors stamped him a habitual criminal.

When Joseph Paiva was arrested for breaking into a half-dozen neighborhood homes around his mother's Aurora house and stealing TVs, stereos, jewelry, CDs, lapel pins, coins and other fencibles, his mother was shocked. But as the days passed and she thought more about it, she realized that, really, she was just caught off guard, and even then, only in the way that you might be if your dog snarled at you. The idea of her son getting into trouble with the law wasn't particularly hard to imagine.

"I was surprised," his mother, Sheila Powers, says, "but I don't know why. I've been through a lot with this kid. A lot. All the times I've had to visit him in different places. Trying to help him with umpteen billion things, and still he'd always mess up."

You might say that Joseph Paiva has made messing up a lifelong habit. He was big trouble even before kindergarten. By the time he'd reached elementary school, his family had already thrown up its hands, and he was soon off on what he now calls his "long journey" -- a three-decade trip through the land of government programs and services.

Hadley Hooper
Despite his disabilities, Joseph Paiva is a talented 
sketch artist.
Despite his disabilities, Joseph Paiva is a talented sketch artist.

Early on, Paiva was found to have an IQ of about seventy; it was predicted that he probably would never be able to process information much better than an elementary-school student. "They tell me I can get a GED," he says, "but they're full of it. I just don't understand things." He even has trouble remembering information immediately after he hears it. That frustrates him, which makes him mad. His temper has cost him friendships, jobs and homes. One thing builds on the other.

For Paiva, the idea of a family was a temporary one, and he grew up surrounded by a revolving cast of characters from group homes, foster homes and residential treatment facilities -- all before he was a teenager. There were countless trips to mental-health counselors and treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals and psychologists. And, of course, in the end, when Paiva became old enough for it, there was prison.

Paiva's final burglary spree began on August 3, 2000, and ended two weeks and as many as six break-ins later. After seeing his criminal scorecard -- which included a handful of other offenses nearly a decade earlier -- the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office declared Paiva a "chronic offender." In the lingo of prosecutors and criminal-defense attorneys, Joseph Paiva, by then 38 years old, was "bitched" -- short for being identified as a habitual criminal -- and sentenced to 48 years in prison. If he is released at all, he will be retirement age.

Among prisoners, Paiva's story is not especially unusual. Thousands of criminals, drug addicts and social losers end up behind bars because, as with Paiva, there is no place else for them to go.

If anything, Paiva is extraordinary only in that he is a much better example of this than others. Anyone with intuition who had observed his first ten years probably could have plotted the trajectory of his life with near-perfect precision: institutions, unemployment, drugs, crime, prison. Nowhere along the line did he appear to be even close to breaking out of his seemingly pre-determined path.

The terms "chronic offender" and "habitual offender" speak for themselves and are generally used interchangeably. These are people to whom the law has given more than enough chances to fly straight; irredeemable, the theory goes, they must be locked up for a long time -- if not forever -- to protect society.

Prisoners like Paiva are complicated cases, though. He's not a murderer; he hasn't committed any violent crimes. And yet you probably wouldn't want him as a dinner guest. Diagnosed as developmentally disabled, a victim of child abuse, a socially inept lifelong ward of the state, Paiva is a prism through which people's views of long-term incarceration are refracted in opposite directions. Depending entirely upon your view, you might consider Paiva the perfect candidate to be labeled a chronic offender and sent off to prison for life.

Or you might see him as a man who without question belongs under someone's close care -- but certainly not that of the Department of Corrections.

"I was born in New Mexico," says Paiva, who has a large, square face and is built well, in the slab-muscle way of a weightlifter. "I forget exactly where."

"No, he wasn't," his mother says. "He was born in Denver. We lived in Commerce City."

As he tells it himself, Paiva's story is a non-linear tale, with episodes and recollections that come and go, not necessarily in any real order. He can skip over a ten-year period without remembering much of anything. "A lot of things happened in my childhood that I can't really keep straight," he admits.

Sheila Powers remembers meeting Paiva's father, Robert, a painting contractor, while working as a waitress at Walgreens. Robert was friendly and funny, and it wasn't until later, when she was married to him and pregnant with Joseph, the first of her three children, that Powers discovered her new husband could be violent.

"He was just a mean person," she remembers. Robert Paiva almost certainly struck Joseph several times; Powers recalls her husband once shaking his son violently in his crib. But, she adds, while Robert occasionally hit his children, he saved his hardest blows for her: "He beat me all the time."

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