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Throwing Cash at Crime 

What's the best way to curb criminal overachievers?

This spring, I predicted that if someone didn't stop Cedric Gaston, 20, it would be only a matter of time before he killed someone.

Last month, he and his friends tried.

Gaston is one of several dozen enterprising young thugs I've kept an eye on as part of my ongoing quest to determine just how many cars you can steal and robberies you can commit without being slapped with an actual prison sentence by the Mecklenburg County court system. Like many of the others on my list, Gaston is pushing back the limits of what the average county resident would believe was criminally possible.

It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and four weeks ago, someone finally did. WBTV reported that Gaston and another man are wanted by the police in the Dec. 2 robbery of Dilworth Billiards. The owner of Dilworth Billiards spent weeks in the hospital recovering from two .40 caliber bullet wounds after Gaston and his friends shot him, WBTV reported. That the man survived two bullet wounds of that caliber is a miracle. That Gaston was out of jail at the time was no less astounding, given his record.

Gaston first made WSOC's evening news a year ago when he and some friends led police on a high-speed car chase after they were caught breaking into cars at the Embassy Suites on Tryon Street. When police caught them, they found thousands of dollars of stolen items, including laptops, iPods and video cameras. It was his 11th arrest since 2005, but it merely slowed him down for a few weeks.

Gaston has since been arrested more than a half dozen times, with four of the arrests coming in the last five months. Since 2005, he has racked up 67 charges, including 21 separate charges of breaking into a motor vehicle, two charges of possession of a stolen vehicle, 11 charges of possession of stolen goods, two charges of larceny of a motor vehicle, various hit-and-run and reckless-driving-related charges and a charge of robbery with a dangerous weapon. According to state prison records, for all this, Gaston has only been sentenced to probation twice.

Since Mecklenburg County judges routinely go behind magistrates and slash bond amounts to absurdly low levels, and because sentencing doesn't happen for a year or more after a crime here -- if at all -- criminals go on wild crime sprees while awaiting trial, rocketing from auto theft to armed robbery to attempted murder in the space of time it takes to sentence them on their initial charges.

All of which leaves me with a question I've so far been unable to get a rational answer to: Why not target high-volume repeat offenders like Gaston, those who rack up dozens of charges in short periods of time while they grow increasingly violent? The standard excuse out of the district attorney's office and the courts in recent years has been that they are underfunded by the state and overwhelmed. There is some truth to this, though things are getting better.

But here is what doesn't add up: If we'd targeted Gaston after his 20th charge and thrown the book at him instead of plea bargaining and suspending his sentences, the district attorney's office wouldn't have had to mess the next 47 charges and no one would have been shot. In cities across the country where the most prolific criminals have been systematically targeted and tried, crime drops by double digits. So why not try it here?

The answer is simple -- political will. The politicians who claim they don't have the resources to target repeat criminals are the same ones pushing the county's "jail diversion" program. (Mecklenburg County Commissioner Parks Helms asked the social services people to change the name of the program from jail diversion to something more mundane because he thought it would upset the public.) The program will target supposedly mentally ill criminals for mandatory social services intervention, medication with anti-depressants like Prozac and counseling. That would be fine if we were talking about targeting the 1 percent of the jail population that is schizophrenic. Unfortunately, according to a county presentation earlier this year, more than 80 percent of the jail population here could qualify for jail diversion.

It's a program the county plans to spend millions testing and eventually tens of millions implementing. And it has the support of everyone from the current chief of police to the district attorney.

So let's get this straight: We have the ability to target and identify a class of criminals and plenty of money to counsel and medicate them as part of this "jail diversion," but we lack the money, time and ability to target repeat criminals like Gaston before they hurt or kill innocent people?

Huh?

County leaders don't mind chucking millions of dollars at jail diversion, but when someone suggests spending more local money targeting criminal high achievers like Gaston, they point to the state, whine that it doesn't fund the justice system properly and then claim that locally funding the system would set a terrible precedent.

So which is it? There's an innocent man who spent his Christmas recovering from .40 caliber bullet wounds who deserves an answer.

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