‘Frequent fliers’ rack up criminal convictions, frustrating officials
Fred W. Nolan Jr. presses one finger after another against a window at the Spokane County Jail.
Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, his birthday: five days he spent on the outside this past year. It’s the first time he remembers being a free man for every milestone that’s part of a seven-month stretch out of jail, the longest run of freedom he has had in 22 years.
Now the 43-year-old is back in Spokane County Jail, awaiting trial on charges that he burglarized the Flour Mill’s mailroom earlier this year.
If he’s found guilty, it will be his 39th felony.
“Pathetic,” Nolan said of his most recent arrest. “Really, pathetic. I cannot emphasize how stupid I feel.”
Police officers on the street call repeat offenders like Nolan “frequent fliers” or “hall of famers.”
They’re felons who, for whatever reason, can’t quit committing crime.
Nolan remembers committing his first crime when he was 10 or 11 years old. His neighbors asked the boy to keep an eye on their house while they ran a quick errand. A girl in the neighborhood persuaded him to enter the home with her and steal some money off the dresser.
“It wasn’t even a conscious act,” Nolan said. “You know how you have a crush on an older girl?”
By the time the couple returned, Nolan was gone but not the girl.
The couple called the police, and the next thing Nolan knew, he was being questioned. His aunt managed to defuse the situation, and he avoided arrest.
But he didn’t stop stealing.
The thefts and burglaries continued, interrupted only by jail or prison time.
“It’s not something that you stop or start,” he said. “It’s not like a car. It’s not like a game.”
Nolan isn’t the only one who can’t stop.
Glen Wayne O’Brien is a 37-year-old with 22 convictions for drugs, theft and forgery.
Christopher Cannata is a 38-year-old with 29 convictions for burglary, theft, malicious mischief and stealing cars.
Jesse Luna is a 29-year-old with 20 convictions including assault and riot.
All four are in Spokane County Jail awaiting trial on new charges.
Tom Michaud, a crime analyst with the Spokane Police Department, said officers and sheriff’s deputies are monitoring between 40 and 60 repeat offenders at any given time through CompStat policing, a system that evaluates where crimes are being committed and how many there are.
Most repeat offenders, like Nolan, are committing property crimes, not the violent crimes covered under Washington’s “three strikes” law that can result in a life sentence.
Police know where they live, and if it appears crime is on the rise in one of their neighborhoods, law enforcement often knows where to start looking for a suspect.
“We see a drop in crime when (repeat offenders) are incarcerated and an increase in crime when they are released,” Michaud said.
Nolan’s most recent arrest was an example of CompStat policing at work, Michaud said.
Surveillance footage at the Flour Mill shows Nolan breaking into the mailroom on the afternoon of May 26, according to police records. Nolan allegedly broke several locks and left with two bags of mail, doing about $600 in damage.
Analysts had identified that part of downtown as an area of high activity and were able to connect Nolan to the crime, Michaud said.
‘Only lifestyle they can live’
Nolan speaks with conviction about his life and his choices; he knows the difference between right and wrong.
At the age of 21 he had two choices: Go to college or keep going to jail.
He had offers for grants and loans to pursue a degree. He lived in a nice house, with nice things. He was in love.
But he also had eight juvenile convictions for burglary and theft.
Nolan made the wrong choice.
“For whatever reason, I just said, ‘What the hell, I’d rather try doing this,’ ” he said of committing crimes. “It’s more fun. It’s more entertaining. I enjoy what I’m doing.”
Zachary Hamilton is an expert on cases like Nolan’s. The Washington State University assistant professor in the criminal justice department analyzes a prisoner’s likelihood to reoffend on behalf of the Department of Corrections.
Hamilton said there’s usually something preventing repeat offenders from staying out of trouble. For whatever reason – usually a drug habit or mental problems – they figure the risk of committing a crime is far less than the risk of not committing a crime.
“With individuals that need to support a drug habit, the easiest way to make money is to keep stealing,” he said.
In other cases, the offender may have an extensive criminal history as a juvenile or parents with previous convictions, Hamilton said. In those cases, crime becomes a career before an offender even knows what a career is, he said.
“Crime becomes the only lifestyle they can live,” he said.
As of Sept. 30, Washington prisons were holding 126 felons with 10 or more convictions from Spokane County. There are another 83 felons with 10 or more convictions on parole or probation in Spokane County.
That’s almost twice that of Clark County, a southwestern Washington county of comparable size. Most are drug and property crimes, according to reports from the DOC.
Nolan said that as a young man, he was “supporting a lifestyle he couldn’t afford.” He insists it’s not drugs, alcohol or any other addiction. He likes “nice things,” he said, and wants to be able to afford them.
Nolan also takes medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to court documents.
“Do I enjoy breaking into a building and staying there for five hours?” he said. “It’s kind of a rush, yeah. I enjoy it.”
Different answers, same problem
It isn’t easy to say what the solution is to Spokane’s repeat offender problem, and different levels of law enforcement have identified different strategies for addressing the issue.
Police and sheriff’s deputies identify individuals with at least three felony convictions as repeat offenders, Michaud said. Police are currently trying to work with repeat offenders after they’re released to help find them find job training and other resources. That’s a new technique, though, so Michaud said there’s no way yet to determine if it’s been successful.
He adds that it’s a more positive interaction than offenders have had with police in the past.
Meanwhile, the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office has identified offenders with nine or more felony convictions as the most dangerous, said Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll. Since July, prosecutors have been told to charge those individuals more aggressively. Prosecutors will look at aggravating factors in felony cases to determine if there’s a way to earn a higher sentence for those people, he said.
Prosecutors have identified more than 60 criminals who qualify for the crackdown, he said.
“It’s frustrating to see the same people over and over,” Driscoll said.
Then there’s Drug Court, Mental Health Therapeutic Court and other systems established to help people break their addictions or get treatment for mental health problems that are contributing to their crimes.
State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is the chairman of the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee. He previously worked as a judge in Spokane County, where he served a year as the judge of the DUI Court.
On average, clients in his court had six or more prior convictions.
The court monitored those offenders’ job history and where they were living. Padden said the structure the program provided was beneficial for the offenders.
“At least during that year, nobody had a new criminal event,” he said.
However, when a person is convicted of 10, 20 and even 30 crimes, maybe it’s time to lock them up for life, Padden said.
“After a higher number than three strikes, you’ve got to say ‘That’s it.’ ”
‘My near future is gloom’
Nolan prays for another chance, but he knows he’s looking at “a lot” of prison time on his new charges, he said.
“Forever and a day,” he said. “I’m 43, so that’s not good.”
And even if he’s given yet another chance, he doesn’t have much to build on. He has no job history, no driver’s license, no living family and nowhere to go. Besides, every time he’s been released, he’s out for a few months, then he’s back behind bars.
“Sure enough I just don’t know when to say when,” Nolan said. “Eventually chances start to dry up.”
Nolan’s trial on the recent burglary charges is set for later this month. And this time, Nolan’s not expecting a reprieve.
“My near future is gloom,” Nolan said. “Very gloom. Very much so. But the bottom line is there’s nothing I can do about it.”