Scratching the Bitch

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

Much of the prison growth can be traced to longer sentences for criminals. Thanks to a series of get-tough-on-crime laws passed in the 1980s, the average time inmates stay behind bars has ballooned. Although legislators have enacted modest reforms to reduce sentences since then, the surge in the number of inmates has not slowed dramatically.

Not surprisingly, habitual offenders are, on average, in prison longer than anyone else. In 2002, the typical chronic criminal stayed locked up just under ten years. Many of the sentences are getting longer, too. In 1998, the average sentence for someone convicted of habitually committing burglaries was 36 years. Last year it averaged 52 years.

Having so many convicts waiting around longer for their release dates is far from cheap. Since 1994, Colorado taxpayers have ponied up more than a half-billion dollars to build new prisons or expand existing facilities. Even with that splurge, most of Colorado's prisons already are filled well beyond the number of inmates they were originally designed to hold.

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

The day-to-day cost of caring for so many criminals adds up, too, and the amount of money Colorado residents must pay to maintain the state's corrections system has grown disproportionately to the rest of the budget. A decade ago, 5.3 percent of the state's annual general-fund budget went to the Department of Corrections. This year, the DOC will need 8.5 percent of the general fund -- or a 60 percent jump -- to pay for its lockups.

Most states have seen similar trends. Thanks to the current budget crisis, however, such big numbers are now starting to attract the attention of lawmakers across the country. More and more of them are starting to wonder: Are long sentences worth the cost?

Upon his release from prison at the end of 1997, Paiva had no income. His Social Security payments had been cut off while he was in prison, but when he reapplied for them after serving his time -- once again citing his learning disabilities -- he was denied.

"They said he didn't need SSI -- that he could make it on his own, if you can believe that," his mother says. "But there was a lot of things he never could do. You couldn't tell him, 'Take this and go here and then go over there and do that.' He couldn't remember a line of things, only one or two."

For a time, Paiva attended Denver's Bayaud Center, which teaches vocational skills to the disabled. Paiva remembers that "they took care of me for a couple of years. They sent me out to do work." One job he recalls is silk-screening. But, he adds, he never lasted long at anything.

"Their equipment was so sophisticated and mind-boggling," he recalls. "My problem was that I asked too many questions: 'Where do I work? What do I do? What should I do next?' I can't go to work with intelligence and smarts, just go to work like everyone else, no questions asked, know what to do. I can't remember stuff; I get confused. There's so much going on in my brain."

Nevertheless, Paiva appears to have stayed out of the police's way for the next couple of years, working occasionally for his uncle in construction. But he also never really adjusted to life on his own. "We found him three different places to live, and he got kicked out of all of them," his mother remembers. "Mostly for wild parties, I guess, and breaking stuff." Eventually he moved into a room in his uncle's house with his mother.

Although Sheila says she doesn't recall her son doing anything out of the ordinary, it appears that by the middle of 2000, Paiva almost certainly was doing drugs again and that he'd once more fallen in with a bad group of friends. "I started running into old friends, mostly street people," he remembers.

For anyone familiar with his history, the result would not have been difficult to predict. In early August 2000, Paiva went on another two-week stealing spree; most of the burglaries were concentrated in a seven-day period. Starting on August 3 and again on August 11, 15, 17 (twice) and 18, he apparently broke into six homes. All of the break-ins were done during the day, when the homes were empty. All were within a mile of his uncle's Aurora home. This was probably due to transportation issues; Paiva seems to have bicycled to most of the crimes.

Paiva was finally busted on August 18, when a woman returned unexpectedly to her home in the middle of the day and discovered Paiva inside. He bolted from the house but was arrested soon after. The cases were not particularly difficult to make; many of the stolen goods were found at Paiva's uncle's house in black plastic bags. More was traced to him through pawnshops.

In March 2001, citing Paiva's string of break-ins, Arapahoe County District Attorney James Peters filed a bitch motion with the court, asking that Paiva be considered a habitual offender. It was granted three months later.

One concern about habitual-offender laws is that they are enforced unevenly. Although the law is the same across Colorado, an examination of state judicial records shows that you are far more likely to be bitched in some parts of the state than others.

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