Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Parole Policies Weak Link in Prison Reduction Plans

Danielle Cervantes and Jeff McDonald of the San Diego Union Tribune report on the growing criticism from parole agents and others, that California parolees are being allowed to violate the conditions of parole without consequences and dangerous offenders who could be locked up again are being left on the streets until they commit a really heinous crime. They also include some really neat charts that show how much parole revocations (the administrative process by which a California parolee can be returned to prison for up to a year for violating the conditions of parole) and ominously, that the prison population has pushed back up, after a couple of years of falling after 2005.

California's current plans to comply with the federal court order to reduce the population by at least forty-thousand inmates depends heavily on "parole reform." Already thousands of California prisoners are being classified as needing only limited parole, which will mean in practice that they receive no supervision or services, nor can they be administratively revoked (what remains is a police license to search and seize without normal constitutional limits, although that could itself be unconstitutional in my view). Parole reform has always been the politically preferred path to prison population reduction because it does not involve changing front end sentencing laws or practices which in turn would require the legislature to vote to keep prosecutors from sending some people to prison who now can be sent there, or encouraging prosecutors to keep more felons in county correctional systems (through a subsidy also requiring legislative approval). The California legislature has already gone beyond its comfort level by approving the parole-lite concept last August.

Critics of the plan (both those who favor no change, and those who favor more radical steps) expect that sooner or later, a pattern of murders or rapes attributable to parolees who theoretically might have been taken off the streets (albeit from a maximum of one year) will cause enough public and media outcry to work a reversal of the parole reform approach. It already happened in 1994 another electoral year in California in which parolee Richard Allen's murder of Polly Klaas made history and created the hyper-penal state we have now.

Cervantes and McDonald suggest we may already have the Polly Klaas case of this year.

The criticism rang anew last week with the release of the corrections file of John Albert Gardner III, the sex offender accused of raping and killing Chelsea King, 17, of Poway. Gardner is also being investigated in the death of Amber Dubois, 14, of Escondido.

Gardner’s case file showed seven parole violations from a previous molestation sentence that could have resulted in a return to prison and stricter post-release supervision.

“The whole concept of parole is prevention,” said Graham McGruer, who spent more than 20 years as a parole agent and manager and is now a private consultant. “There’s a greater possibility that these girls would be alive today if parole had been watching.”

Of course the premise of these arguments, that parole officers would have sent him back to prison but for political interference is specious. As Philip Garrido taught us, sex offenders can hide in plain sight all day long with California parole so long as they are not turning in dirty drug tests or signs that can be routinely tracked. Indeed the whole edifice of corrections rests on the very dubious premise that the people we have already identified as felons are more dangerous to us, than the person next to us on the bus who has never been marked us such by our criminal justice system.

My solution? Get rid of state parole completely but require all California prisoners to report periodically to local police or probation. Return the money now spent on parole to the counties along with a list of prisoners within six months of release to that county from state prison. Let the counties use their enhanced police, probation, and other resources to provide the best locally crafted solution to reduce the future offending risk of that returning prisoner causing significant harm to the community.

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