Parolee rights clash with public safety concerns in California. Convicted rapist finds a haven, but basic conflict is unresolved
San Francisco — Public outcry over the parole of convicted rapist Lawrence Singleton has subsided with the announcement that he will live in quarters at the California state prison at San Quentin for the next year. But his case points up a fundamental conflict that pits the rights of criminals against those of communities. Should a community have the right to know when a notorious, potentially dangerous criminal is being paroled in its midst? Or will the resulting ``glare of publicity'' diminish a convict's chances of successfully reintegrating into society?
The California Department of Corrections says confidentiality is a must. ``It's our job to supervise a successful parole period, a time of reacclimating [convicts] into society,'' says department spokesman Bob Gore. ``You can't do that in a glare of publicity. The general public is not told, because there's no reason for them to know.''
But residents and local officials of Contra Costa County, where the department repeatedly tried to parole Singleton, beg to differ. With up to 60 percent of parolees eventually returning to prison - whether for parole violations or committing new crimes - communities naturally are concerned about public safety, they say.
``Think any chief of police wants to supervise this guy [Singleton]?'' asks Nancy Fahden, a superviser in Contra Costa County, which is just east of San Francisco. ``None of them have enough money in their budgets to provide the kind of supervision he needs.''
Singleton, who served eight years of a 14-year sentence for raping and mutilating a teen-age girl, spent his first month of parole shuttling from town to town. In each community, as his location was revealed, Singleton was forced to move because of protests by angry, sometimes threatening, residents.
Finally, Gov. George Deukmejian stepped into the controversy. But with his decision last weekend to put Singleton on the grounds of San Quentin, the governor said, ``I call upon all public officers and law-abiding citizens to understand that they must set a good example and that mob rule has no place in our society.''
Now, reflecting on the hysteria surrounding Singleton's parole, public officials are pointing fingers at each other. The state Department of Corrections has come under fire from local representatives for its handling of the case. ``It's the most stubborn, arrogant agency we've ever dealt with,'' says an aide to state Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, whose district includes the town of Antioch, where Singleton initially was to be paroled. ``They wouldn't return our phone calls or give us the information we asked for. ... The department brought this uproar on itself.''
But Mr. Gore of the Corrections Department says Contra Costa County politicians are to blame for inciting local residents and preventing Singleton's placement. The news media, he adds, aggravated the situation by engaging in ``a feeding frenzy without regard to what constituted a news story.''
Under the law, the state parole board is not required to notify local officials when it releases a parolee into a community. ``If people are going to act like that, then - no, communities shouldn't have the right to know,'' says Stanford University law Prof. John Kaplan.
But a bill to require notification has been moved off the back burner in the Legislature, partly as a result of the Singleton uproar. Sponsored by Assemblyman Rusty Areias of Salinas, the bill would require the state parole board to notify local law-enforcement officials a minimum of 30 days before releasing a convict into their jurisdiction.
Although the Department of Corrections says it always provides at least a few days' notice, Assemblyman Areias's office says it has identified several cases in which local law-enforcement officers received no advance notice. In one case, a convicted rapist was paroled in Monterey County for several days before local police were notified, staff aide Leslie Medina says.
Of 34,000 parolees in California, Singleton is one of the few to have gained such notoriety. Experts say the public fastened onto Singleton's early release, the heinous nature of his crime, and his remorseless insistence that he was framed. Such cases are aberrations, and do not reflect the effectiveness of the parole system, says Marjorie C. Swartz of the American Civil Liberties Union.
``There are certain high-profile cases where this will always happen.'' she says.