It’s a beautiful image — the quiet genius happening upon a lost soul and using that intellect to return the wanderer to a safe place.
But in July, Liu happened upon a different kind of lost soul. Two men, who had spent the better part of their adult lives with the North Carolina Department of Corrections. Two lost souls, who, after robbing Liu, beat him with a landscaping block and left him for dead on West University Drive. Liu later died from his injuries at UNC Hospitals.
Police ultimately charged Durham resident Derick Davis II, 23, and Chapel Hill resident Troy Arrington Jr., 27, with first degree murder and felony counts of robbery in connection with Liu’s death.
And the image everyone clung to in the days following the news of Liu’s killing was this — when Arrington first faced a judge for his charges, he was still wearing a GPS ankle bracelet from a pre-trial release from Durham County on larceny charges.
Davis spent 30 months in correctional facilities for crimes including breaking and entering properties, assaulting a female and larceny of motor vehicles in the five years leading up to October 2013. Arrington spent 27 months in correctional facilities for crimes including obtaining property by false pretenses and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, in the four years leading up to November 2013.
Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said probation in reality isn’t like the movies, where law enforcement is able to track a former criminal’s every move.
“There are a lot of limitations and unfortunately people are going to commit crimes on probation or soon after jail or prison,” he said, not speaking specifically about Arrington and Davis’ homicide cases because they are pending.
“Those things are going to happen. That’s wrong, and you don’t want it to happen. But the flip side of it (is), I tell people all the time when they say, ‘Somebody broke into my house, and they should be in jail till their case is handled.’ I tell them, ‘We literally do not have enough jail space to put everybody in jail while their case is handled.’”
Recidivism — when someone relapses into criminal behavior after they are punished for a separate crime — is a challenging phenomenon for N.C. law enforcement.
The state’s rearrest rate was about 40.7 percent in the 2010-11 fiscal year, an increase in 9.2 percentage points since 2001-02, according to a 2014 study by the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.
The commission sampled more than 57,000 inmates and considered recidivism to be an arrest, conviction or incarceration during a two-year follow-up period.
Part of the reason for the increase is being able to count arrests with fingerprinting technology, the report states.
Front lines of the issue
For the people on the front lines of the issue — police officers and others in law enforcement — recidivism is an issue handled case-by-case.
“Occasionally we’ll pull individual data by name if we start realizing we’ve arrested the same person ten times in the last two months,” said Lt. Josh Mecimore, a spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department. “We’re looking if we need to start doing something different than just rearresting the same person for the same thing.”
But for more serious crimes like breaking and enterings, Mecimore said the department tries to be proactive and track repeat offenders as they’re released from the Department of Corrections.
“We’ll occasionally set up alerts for people that we know have a long history of (breaking and entering.) Frequently if we have someone who has a long history released from prison we’ll see an uptick in (breaking and entering,)” Mecimore said.
Armed with the information from the notification network, Mecimore said officers are better equipped to police crime.
Assistant Police Chief Jabe Hunter works to combat recidivism in another way. Hunter is the Chapel Hill Police Department’s representative on Project Safe Orange, a local version of a national effort called Project Safe Neighborhoods.
Project Safe Neighborhoods was designed to reduce illegal gun and gang-related violent crimes. The project brings law enforcement and prosecutors together to meet with people recently released from the N.C. Department of Corrections.
“We just tell them, ‘Look, as a felon, you can’t even own a bullet, and we take them through the wide range of sentencing that they can face for just owning a bullet,” Hunter said. “We’re trying to change behavior by educating folks.”
Life in the trenches
Project Safe Orange works with Fathers on the Move, a one-of-a-kind program in Orange County that provides support groups for men who are incarcerated.
“Even when I deal with a gang or something they’re looking for that nucleus, that family structure,” said Bishop Victor Glover, the chief executive officer of Fathers on the Move. “But it’s all a facade. Then I visit them in prison, and that’s when you really figure out who your bloods are.”
The support group helps participants set achievable goals for their future employment, parenting and educational opportunities.
“While they’re in prison, I tell these guys, ‘You don’t start your plan when you get out. You start your plan before you get out.’”
When Orange County opted to remove the questions about prior felony convictions from its preliminary applications, it was at the request of the advocates in Fathers on the Move.
“Nobody will hire them, especially because they have a record,” Glover said. “In our brotherhood, we can encourage them. They can get 100 nos, and all it takes is one yes.
“Literally, some of our guys are on the brink of going back out there, and we say no and encourage them, and the next week they get a job.”
After helping one participant put the finishing touches on his resume, Glover said the man framed the document because he was so proud of it.
Fred Wilson, the president of Fathers on the Move, said it’s successful because its leaders and participants share many of the same experiences.
Julius Lockwood, a correctional officer in Hillsborough who’s training to be a leader for Fathers on the Move, said the program works because of the brotherhood it provides. Lockwood said Orange County is one of the state’s top counties for rehabilitating inmates. He said Hillsborough’s correctional facility has a waitlist because inmates want access to the resources the county offers.
“A lot of them are very concerned that they have nobody,” Lockwood said. “We’re dealing with these guys before they come home. We try to become family and they need that.”
The main battlefield
As a district attorney who spends a lot of time in the courtroom, Woodall said North Carolina’s justice system has become less of a “revolving door.” Though his office doesn’t track data about recidivism in the county, he sees fewer familiar people come through the court system than ever before.
“No matter what you do, there’s no system that’s going to prevent people from coming into the system over and over,” he said. Woodall first noticed the changes after the 2011 Justice Reinvestment Act.
The law aimed to reduce the inmate population of more than 40,000 inmates; spending on the correctional system, which surpassed $1 billion; and the crime rate. A high recidivism rate fed into all of that, so the state added 175 probation officers and changed the supervision of inmates after they left prison.
Woodall said probation officers now assess a prisoner’s risk and needs upon release, ranking their risk on a scale. People who are ranked high are the least likely to commit crimes, and the lower scores signify that the prisoner is likely to commit a crime again.
The state focuses its resources on inmates who fall in the middle. It’s not a wise use of resources to focus on those who are extremely likely to return to crime, Woodall said.
“We’ve learned that no matter how many resources you put behind them, they are almost certainly going to re-offend,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you give up on them.”
Susan Katzenelson, director of the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, said it was too soon to tell if the new approach to probation was reducing recidivism. Unlike the prison population size, the recidivism rate in the state has held steady for the past few years, she said.
“We’re hoping that our next cycle, we will have enough probationers who have gone through this new approach,” she said. “That will be the ultimate test.”
She said many factors work against rehabilitating former prisoners: substance abuse, mental illness and a skills gap that makes it challenging to secure a job.
“A lot of offenders don’t have good habits of getting up in the morning, knowing how to get to work,” she said. “It’s often a vicious cycle. Once you solve one problem you have another.”