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SANDY BANKS

Parole reform is a tough sell

March 28, 2009|SANDY BANKS

I watched Friday's funeral for the four Oakland police officers from my newsroom desk, transfixed by the images of valor and grief. And I was tempted to scrap this column. It seemed suddenly sacrilegious to be writing about what society ought to be doing for parolees.

Then I thought back to the conversations I had this week with Los Angeles police officers.

They live daily with the reality that all it takes to turn a traffic stop into a tragedy is an ex-con behind the wheel, with a gun and a grudge.

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It has been almost 40 years since the state suffered such a crushing loss of law enforcement officers in one incident.

And it's worth noting that the 1970 shootout that killed four California Highway Patrol officers near a freeway in the Newhall Pass was the work of two ex-convicts on parole, determined not to return to the penitentiary.

This week, in the aftermath of the Oakland shooting, complaints about the criminal justice system were predictable but impractical -- longer prison terms, tougher laws, lock them up and throw away the key. That doesn't reflect reality.

More than 85% of the people we send to prison serve their terms and are paroled back to the streets. And more than 70% of them will return to crime and wind up behind bars again.

That makes ex-convicts the prison system's most dangerous product.

"If the police are pursuing a parolee who's involved in criminal activities, he knows his parole will be violated. And they don't want to go back to prison," explained LAPD Commander Kyle Jackson. "They're angry, and they're desperate.

"They're the foot pursuits, the barricaded suspects, the guys we spend hours and hours trying to negotiate with . . . and they wind up trying to shoot it out with officers."

For the last six months, Jackson has headed an LAPD project aimed at revamping parole practices to cut crime and reduce recidivism. The program will combine a network of education, drug treatment and job training with psychological therapy for prisoners returning to the streets.

It was proposed last fall by Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner, who died unexpectedly last month, leaving Jackson to carry it out. More than 60 community agencies are involved. The program will be rolled out in June, with about 50 parolees in Watts.

Watts is familiar ground to Jackson. He grew up in South Los Angeles, lived for a time as a child in the Nickerson Gardens housing project and is now the area's police commander. He understands the pain of crime and of incarceration. His 22-year-old son is serving a prison term for robbery.

Jackson holds degrees in public policy and criminal justice and has put them to use researching this project. "This could not only cut crime in Los Angeles," he told me, "but help us rethink parole around the country."

The typical convict has a seventh-grade reading level and has never held a job, he said. "They're poorly educated, drug abusers, with negative peer associations and significant criminal histories."

But their biggest obstacle is what he calls an "antisocial orientation." Or what I call a serious attitude problem.

Research has shown that career criminals tend to be quick-tempered, angry and uncaring. They don't feel accountable for us. They don't respect our rules or values "because their own lives have been a maze of failure, denial and suffering," Jackson said.

That sounds a little touchy-feely, until he translates it for me: "You have a guy who robs the local liquor store. But he thought he'd get $500 and there's only $200. So he gets angry and shoots the merchant. Now a robbery has turned into a murder."

What's needed is not just more jobs, better education and drug treatment programs, he said, but therapy to help ex-convicts develop a "more pro-social temperament, associations and attitudes."

In other words, making streets safer means changing the way the criminals think.

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I don't think any of this would have helped Lovelle Mixon, a man cold-blooded enough to shoot two motorcycle cops to death during a traffic stop, then hunker down in the closet of his sister's apartment with an assault rifle ready to take out as many cops as he could.

Right now Mixon is held up as an example of the failure of our parole system: Caseloads are too big, resources too few, supervision too often hit-or-miss.

But the irony is, the system worked in this case, as well as it could. Mixon met with his parole agent several times. He was tested for drugs, referred to community programs for drug treatment and jobs. His agent visited him at home.

Then Mixon dropped out of sight. He was a suspect in a homicide. His DNA matched evidence in the rape of a 12-year-old girl. There was a warrant out for his arrest when police stopped him.

If Mixon's case symbolizes anything, it's the shortcomings of a parole system grounded in surveillance.

Still, I imagine Jackson will have a tough time selling a big-ticket program to help parolees in a time of shrinking resources. "I understand that," he told me. "They're a nuisance. They commit crimes. 'Let's put them in prison and get them out of the way.' "

But I'm glad to have a police commander leading the charge. Because he knows better than anybody, "It's not a matter of whether we like it or not. We can put them away. But they're coming back."

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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