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Commentary

A See-No-Evil Parole System

May 12, 2003|Jonathan Turley

This week, Gov. Gray Davis is contemplating the ultimate Zen paradox: If an ex-con violates his parole and no one is around to see it, does it still count?

For Davis, this is not just some metaphysical mind-teaser for an afternoon in the lotus position. It may be the long-sought solution to a growing crisis in the California criminal justice system.

California has the highest recidivism rate of any state, with an estimated 70% of released prisoners returning to prison within three years. With a budget shortfall and rising recidivism, someone in the Davis administration had a brainstorm for instant crime reduction: No parole supervision means fewer parole violations.

Sure, the crimes and violations would still occur and probably increase. However, on paper, California could report a violation rate as perfect -- and as manufactured -- as a Hollywood movie set.

Welcome to Zen and the art of correctional maintenance. Davis is struggling to deal with what can only be described as a meltdown in his criminal justice system. California now holds 164,000 prisoners, virtually the same number of people as the entire federal prison system.

Each year, California prisons release more than 125,000 inmates into society, with the expectation that more than 82,000 will be back soon after they commit new crimes or break parole.

Those who bear the cost of these crimes are not politicians but average people victimized by repeat offenders. Few Californians realize that their injuries and losses could have been avoided with the exercise of a modicum of leadership and common sense.

The origins of this crisis can be traced to California's imposition of its three-strikes law and other measures that pushed its prisons to the breaking point. All 33 of California's prisons are seriously overcrowded, and a third of them hold more than double their design capacity.

As a result, prison officials have had to implement warehousing policies and have eliminated programs designed to reduce recidivism. Once a prison reaches severe overcrowding levels, mandatory releases begin -- including some prisoners with high recidivism potential.

Once a prisoner is released into the parole system, California relies primarily on divine intervention rather than standard rehabilitation to guide ex-cons. Each parolee is simply given $200 and a bus ticket -- just enough to have a good time and a good crime at state expense.

California's parole budget has already suffered severe cutbacks that almost guaranteed failure. In the 1990s, the budget was slashed by 44%. As it stands now, each parole officer has to monitor more than 80 parolees, reducing his or her work to little more than record-keeping. Not surprisingly, parole officers are more than happy to send back parolees for even the slightest violation -- California revokes parole twice as often as any other state.

For years, experts have called for the reform of the parole supervision system. There is a general consensus that the state is "parole revocation happy" and that many technical violations should not result in re-incarceration. Instead, the state needs a real supervision system in which parole officers have the ability to actually monitor and work with parolees. However, this takes money and political responsibility.

Instead, Corrections Director Edward Alameida reportedly told his wardens last week that the state was considering no supervision as the solution to supervision problems and costs. It turns out that the state could save $483 million by eliminating parole supervision -- a modest proposal given the possible savings of billions by eliminating prisons altogether. Of course, the costs of the unmonitored parolees would be borne by victims, but they are a strictly off-budget item.

Conversely, the new proposal would be a windfall for California's gangs. Gangs have long used California prisons as recruiting schools. Prison releases are critical in replenishing the ranks of the gangs, which now have more than 100,000 members -- the equivalent of 10 army divisions patrolling the streets of California. Because many of these members are on parole supervision, they would now be left to the Davis honors system.

This reckless proposal to eliminate the parole supervision system is something only a recidivist would love. Of course, for a state official, it is the very model of efficiency. In fact, a see-no-evil approach could be the solution to a host of social problems from illiteracy to teen pregnancies.

In the Zen-like state envisioned by these officials, there is no public problem that cannot be solved with a little less attention and effort.

Jonathan Turley is a professor at George Washington Law School.

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