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Fiscal Concerns Drive Wilson's Parole Policy, Memos Show : Prisons: Analyst's reports appear to undercut governor's contention that public safety is always the top Administration priority. But corrections officials say a 'numbers guy' was expressing his own views.


SACRAMENTO — A Wilson Administration effort to reduce the number of parolees returned to prison was propelled by budget pressures and monitored by middle managers urging supervisors in the field to stay within targets set by prison headquarters, according to internal memos obtained by The Times.

The memos, written by a Department of Corrections administrator who was tracking the progress of the project, appear to undercut Gov. Pete Wilson's contention that public safety considerations have always outweighed budget considerations in the setting of criminal justice policy.

But Department of Corrections officials say the views expressed in the progress reports were those of a "numbers guy," a researcher who had no authority over the parole system. The author's concerns about the budget, they say, came only after his superiors had determined that the policy he was tracking could save the state money while also promoting public safety.

The memos were released by the state in response to a request under the California Public Records Act and were written over a 16-month period by Norman Holt, a veteran analyst in the department's Sacramento headquarters. They were distributed to the Department of Correction's top officials and the supervisors of the state's four parole regions.

Wilson's parole policies have become a hot topic in the Republican governor's campaign for reelection. At issue is the way in which his Administration has handled the tens of thousands of convicted felons who pour forth from state prisons each year, many of whom go on to break the law or violate the strict guidelines that govern their behavior while they are on parole.

Democrat Kathleen Brown asserts that Wilson, despite his harsh anti-crime rhetoric, pursued a policy that endangered the public by allowing more parole violators to remain on the streets rather than being returned to prison.

Interviews with parole agents and some records released earlier appeared to support Brown's contention that the Administration's policy was primarily designed to save money by reducing prison overcrowding. The memos obtained by The Times fit into the same pattern.

The reports track the progress of the so-called Improved Decision Making Project, under which supervisors and parole agents were trained to assess the risk presented by each parolee and use a more thorough, consistent process to decide whether to send a violator back to prison or allow the parolee to remain free. The project was originated under Gov. George Deukmejian, but implemented under Wilson.

Administration officials say the project was designed to target parolees who had been in prison for nonviolent crimes and whose parole violations were considered minor, most involving drug use. But it applied to all parole decisions.

Holt's progress reports included several pages of charts and graphs showing whether each of about 100 parole offices around the state was meeting the department's goals for reducing the number of prison beds used by parolees. Based on the numbers, Holt, trained as a sociologist, wrote a few pages of commentary evaluating how the project was going.

Typical was Holt's comment in an Aug. 25, 1992, report, in which he calculated the fiscal consequences of unnecessarily sending people back to prison:

"With the current combined, in-and-out population approaching 100,000 parolees," Holt wrote, "1% equals about 1,000 prison beds and 1/10 of a point equals 100 beds or $1,000,000 in overcrowding costs."

In another report, Holt castigated field offices that were sending too many parole violators back to prison. If local parole offices that were overshooting their budgets were private businesses, he wrote, they would be declared insolvent, hounded by creditors and forced into bankruptcy proceedings.

"This project is based on fiscal responsibility," Holt wrote. "Some parole units use many more resources and have made little progress in the last seven months bringing their average supervision cost in line with the rest of the division."

In another memo, Holt recapped a meeting of Northern California administrators and supervisors that turned stormy because some supervisors were resisting the department's pressure to avoid, when possible, sending parolees back to prison.

"There is still some fighting over ideologies," Holt wrote. "It needs to be transformed into strictly budget terms to get full cooperation."

During the last six months of 1991, Holt reported, most offices made progress in reducing the number of parolees they were returning to prison. But in January and February, 1992, the gains made the year before began to slip away because of a sudden resurgence in the number of parole violators going back to prison.

The increase "surprised everyone," Holt wrote. "It's a sober reminder of how fragile the project is: built upon administrative urging (or badgering, if you prefer) a little data, a few resources and not much else."

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