ABOUT 8:30 p.m. last Tuesday, Jan. 20, there was an armed robbery near Troup Square in downtown Savannah. No one was injured.
A 26-year-old suspect, Dennis Lamar White, was quickly caught and charged with the crime.
Police say White approached a 32-year-old victim on Harris Street, walking toward Habersham. White allegedly pointed a gun at the man and took his money.
The victim was able to get away without being harmed when a car approached, causing White and his accomplice to scatter—but evidently not far enough.
If you followed local news over the weekend, you already know the punchline:
This is White’s eighth arrest since his early release from state prison in 2013.
He has been arrested over a dozen times before by local law enforcement.
And that was his second prison term.
Don’t worry: This column won’t be about how horrible it is that something bad happened in the tourist district.
And it isn’t about the larger social/economic/racial picture of how the American prison system is a well-oiled machine for manufacturing career criminals.
The immediate point is that something is catastrophically wrong in our local legal system for an identified repeat offender to have so many chances to wreak so much havoc.
The day after the robbery a reader emailed me. An excerpt:
“We are bewildered and outraged about why he has been allowed to be released 7 times to continue to prey on the public,” he writes. “I would appreciate that you look into this and let us and the public know why our legal system has failed to protect us from him? The failures of our legal system militate against the changes we all want that you have proposed for 2015 in your Blueprint for a better Savannah.”
I’m bewildered too! The ineffectiveness of our legal system, especially in how it treats chronic offenders, has been a core issue for decades. Arguably the core issue.
Between revolving-door early releases, generous plea deals, oddball leniency from judges, and continuing lack of oversight at “transitional centers,” it’s really no wonder a man like White was—allegedly—rolling downtown looking for an easy mark.
A few years ago, eerily similar complaints led to the ousting of former Chatham County District Attorney Larry Chisolm after an aggressive campaign by challenger Meg Daly Heap, in which she accused Chisolm of being far too soft on crime.
Ominously, now Heap herself is under the exact same criticism, in almost the exact same words. It bodes ill not just for her reelection but for the continuing growth and health of Chatham County itself.
I wish I had an easy answer for why our legal system seems so eager to break the body and spirit of some young people before they can have even a second chance for redemption, but also seems quick to give the most egregious repeat offenders many chances for redemption long after they seem beyond it—and after they’ve already amassed a list of victims a mile long.
I don’t want to sound like that guy who says we need to lock “those people” up and throw away the key. That’s not me.
But I do think that all the money we pay for all these police and courts and judges and jails isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if we can’t bring that system to bear on the hardcore offenders who time and again clearly choose a life of terrorizing others.
All the police in the world can’t help you if the courts are broken.
So now is as good a time as any to remind you that not only is the DA an elected office—many of our judges are elected, too.
How many times have you seen a local judge running unopposed for reelection?
Like, pretty much every single time?
Maybe if we want to change things that’s a good place to look, too?