SACRAMENTO — While state prison officials at a widely publicized hearing last month delayed the release of Arthur Jackson, who has served more than six years in prison for attempting to murder actress Theresa Saldana, another 240 or so inmates quietly joined the fast-growing ranks of parolees living in Los Angeles County.
For every well-known prospective parolee such as Jackson, hundreds of anonymous inmates serve their sentences and are paroled from prison with $200 in their pockets and an uneasy hope that they can jump-start their lives on the outside.
Without fanfare, they report to parole offices tucked into office buildings and suburban shopping centers throughout the county. Under the wary eyes of parole agents, they seek jobs and homes in neighborhoods from Gardena to Glendale and from Azusa to the Antelope Valley.
The state Department of Corrections estimates that during the next five years the parolee population in Los Angeles County will climb by about 65%, from 22,000 to almost 37,000, which will cost taxpayers roughly $45 million more a year.
"These people live next door to you. . . . They can live anywhere," said Edward Freeman, an assistant parole unit supervisor in North Hollywood. "When you put these guys in (prison), they've got to come out sooner or later," he said. Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), chairman of a joint legislative committee on prison construction, acknowledged that the public is probably unaware "that there are just hundreds and hundreds" of parolees who, like deranged drifter Jackson, "committed serious offenses."
Now, the explosion in the prison population--last week it was disclosed that corrections officials estimate they need to build about 15 more prisons in addition to those already planned--is expected to fuel a tremendous new surge in the number of parolees.
Even before the recent projections, the county's escalating parole population had helped kindle community opposition to new parole offices in the San Gabriel Valley and Long Beach. Meantime, it also has highlighted a long-simmering debate about the role of agents, who are assigned to help inmates re-enter society while protecting public safety.
In the current fiscal year the Department of Corrections, which has an overall budget of about $2 billion, has earmarked about $200 million for about 1,100 agents--whose ranks have more than doubled in the past three years.
The budget to supervise parolees is expected to continue to climb because corrections officials predict that the number of parolees in California will soar from the current 54,000 to 82,250 in three years and 98,000 in five years. By comparison, just two years ago only about 37,000 people were on parole. One reason cited for the increase has been a jump in the number of parole violators--38% of parolees are returned to prison because they violate terms of their parole, according to the Corrections Department.
Parole officials anticipate that Los Angeles County will be especially hard hit by the growth in parolees because at least one-third of the inmates are released to the county. (Inmates are usually paroled to their home counties and about one-third of the state's inmates come from Los Angeles County.)
The mounting numbers have prompted parole officials to search for more offices. One such search sparked protests in the San Gabriel Valley. The search also led to legislation by Sen. Joseph Montoya (D-Whittier), who represents the area, aimed at blocking new parole facilities near schools, parks and other places where children congregate.
Elsewhere in the county, the Department of Corrections has plans for new or expanded parole offices in the Huntington Park area, Inglewood, Carson and the San Fernando and Antelope Valleys. So far, none of these proposals has aroused the public outcry that surfaced in the San Gabriel Valley.
Montoya introduced his bill after a parole office opened in Alhambra, near the Monterey Park border. The office was a block from the Monterey Heights School and community park and next to an Alhambra High School bus stop. Residents of the area said they feared for their safety because of the influx of felons and maintained that crime increased after the office opened in 1987.
The state has promised to close its parole office later this year and Monterey Park and Alhambra have agreed to help pay the costs of relocating to the Pasadena area. But state authorities have encountered similar objections from residents of the Hastings Ranch section of Pasadena, prompting parole officials to renew their search, which is still under way.
Jerome DiMaggio, regional parole supervisor in Los Angeles, termed the reaction in the San Gabriel Valley as "kind of hysterical" because, if anything, parole offices serve as a deterrent to crime.