Angry parole agents picketed in front of the San Diego County Courthouse on Monday to protest the state's plan to lay off 231 agents statewide before Jan. 1.
The proposed layoffs were prompted by a $32-million budget cut in the parole division of the California Department of Corrections.
The 30 or so protesters at the peaceful demonstration said about 58 agents will be laid off from the district encompassing San Diego, Orange and San Bernardino counties. Of those, 20 work in the San Diego area, according to spokesmen for the protesters.
"No one is being cut in administration," said Steve Scherb, one of the spokesmen. "They're cutting the agents who supervise some of the state's most dangerous criminals when they are released from prison."
Scherb, a parole agent since 1987, will survive this year's layoffs. Still, he joined the other protesters, he said, to "warn the public about the possible consequences because of the layoffs."
"Except for murderers doing life terms, every inmate has a right to parole. Parole is a right, not a privilege," Scherb said. "If you cut supervision of the most violent offenders, you'll have people at risk in the community."
Gary Gatlin, another spokesman for the protesting agents, said about 85,000 people are on parole throughout the state and that about 5,000 of them live in San Diego County. Gatlin, a parole agent for about five years, also expects to survive this round of layoffs.
"The public doesn't understand the consequences of the cutbacks and layoffs," he said. "They think that if we get laid off the convicts will stay in prison. That's not true. Inmates will get paroled even if there aren't enough agents to supervise them."
The protesters blamed Gov. Pete Wilson for the layoffs and $32-million cutback. However, parole division spokesman Tip Kindel said the cutback was mandated by the Legislature.
"It's difficult for a lot of them to understand that the Legislature made the decision to cut $32 million," Kindel said. "That decision is irrevocable, at least for this (fiscal) year, and the demonstrations are not going to change the decision.
"The director had no choice but to come up with ways not to spend that $32 million," Kindel said. "The options were either you reduce the workload or you reduce the staff."
Parole division officials said they have tried to place some laid-off employees in jobs at various correctional facilities. The jobs are for correctional officers or counselors.
Marie Birkenbach, one of the protesting agents, said she was offered a counselor's position at Calapatria, in Imperial County, but turned it down. She was notified that she is one of the 231 agents scheduled to lose their jobs by the end of December.
"I was told to be ready to report for work in four days, but I told them to forget it," Birkenbach said. "I've worked 4 1/2 years as a parole agent and 16 1/2 as a county probation officer. I wasn't trained to work in a prison."
Officials said most parole agents average 60 cases each. However, Birkenbach said she now supervises about 90 cases.
"One thing is certain: After the layoffs, the agents' caseload will increase substantially," she said. "There are six people in my unit, and after December there will only be one left."
Gatlin said the layoffs will lead to an increase in crime and that, in the long run, it is cheaper to supervise inmates on parole than to incarcerate them.
"If we supervise parolees, it only costs about $2,500 per parolee per year," he said. "That's if we can get them a job, off drugs and prevent them from going back to prison."
"If we can't do this because there aren't enough parole agents, sooner or later the parolee will be rearrested, prosecuted again and sent to state prison. It costs the state $20,000 a year to keep a guy in prison."