Dugard case: Is California's parole system overstretched?

Jaycee's abductor was a parolee, Phillip Garrido. His story is now framing the debate about how the state should relieve overcrowded prisons, and who should be watched most closely.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Criminal charges against a parolee in the abduction of Jaycee Lee Dugard have added fuel to arguments from some California Republicans and law enforcement groups opposed to changes in the state's parole system.

But criminal justice experts say the arrest of Phillip Garrido, a registered sex offender who was under GPS monitoring, for Ms. Dugard's 1991 abduction is just one example of why the state's parole system needs to be overhauled.

"Those cases are proof of why you need greater supervision for high-risk people. The system is too lenient on the most violent and too harsh on people who would literally not be on parole at all in other states," says Joan Petersilia, a professor of criminology at Stanford University and author of "When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry."

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On Monday the California State Assembly passed its version of a prison reform bill designed to reduce inmate populations in the state's overcrowded penitentiaries and cut prison spending. While the Assembly removed some of the provisions in the Senate bill, parole reform remained intact.

"It's pretty monumental what California is doing to its parole system," says Professor Petersilia. "Everyone will continue to go on parole but only 40 percent will go on real parole," she says. The rest would get what she calls 'parole-light.' "

That change promises to reduce the average caseload of California parole officers from 70 parolees to 45 parolees. Seth Unger, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), says that some case officers oversee as many as 100 parolees and are stretched too thin to "spend enough time" monitoring the most serious cases.

But Senate Republican Tom Harman railed against any reform to the existing parole system.

This is what he told the Sacramento Bee:

"Here was a prisoner who was a very great danger to the community. The parole people knew it, he was supposedly being checked three times a month, and still he was able to perpetrate this crime that lasted over 18 years."

What's more, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is calling for tougher parole supervision.

The new bill requires that all California inmates leaving prisons be on parole for a minimum of one year. While violent criminals will remain under active parole supervision, nonviolent offenders will be placed on what's called "banked" or "summary" parole. That basically means that those individuals will still be subject to warrantless searches by police.

Mr. Unger says if those changes were in place today they would probably have little impact on the supervision of someone like Mr. Garrido since sex offenders would still be subjected to parole supervision for a maximum term of life.

Garrido was convicted on federal charges of kidnapping and rape in the 1970s and eventually had his parole transferred to California authorities. Unger says Garrido's caseworker already had a reduced caseload of about 40 parolees of violent offenders.

The CDCR said on Tuesday that it's investigating why its parole division failed to find Dugard at Garrido's Antioch, Calif., residence during visits to his property.

"We don't see that his most recent parole agent acted any way but accordingly," Gordon Hinkle, CDCR deputy press secretary for corrections told the San Jose Mercury News.

About 120,000 people leave California prisons annually and are placed under the watch of 5,000 parole officers. While California places 100 percent of exiting inmates on parole, the national average is about 40 percent. The reform plan, which still needs the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, also aims to reduce the number of parolees who are returned to prison for violating the terms of their parole.

Petersilia says about 70,000 parolees return to prison annually due to "technical violations" of their parole agreements. That often means they failed a drug test. Under the new law, she says, parolees would only be returned to jail if they commit new crimes.

She says that will go a long way in reducing overcrowding in the state's prisons system that is nearly double its intended capacity.

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