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The case for parole reform

Terrible stories like Jaycee Lee Dugard's should not derail legislation to change the system.

September 01, 2009

The tragic case of Jaycee Lee Dugard, abducted at the age of 11 and allegedly held captive for 18 years in a backyard complex of tents and outbuildings at an Antioch home, has raised a newly relevant question: How could the alleged kidnappers and their victims have hidden in plain sight for so long? And does the apparent failure of parole agents to detect the ongoing crimes show that reforms to the state's parole system are a bad idea?

Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, who have been charged with 29 counts of kidnapping and rape, were well known to law enforcement officials. Garrido was placed on parole in 1988 after serving 11 years of a 50-years-to-life sentence on federal kidnapping and rape charges. He spent 11 more years on federal parole, then was placed under the supervision of California officials. A parole officer visited the Garridos' home a few times a month but never saw anything suspicious and never went into the backyard.

Political opportunists were quick to use the headline-grabbing Dugard case as an argument against prison and parole reforms being considered by lawmakers. "This demonstrates the problem that we're going to have if we release thousands of prisoners into our local communities," state Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) told the Sacramento Bee. Actually, it demonstrates pretty much the opposite.

Faced with the necessity of cutting $1.2 billion from the ballooning corrections budget, the Assembly on Monday approved a bill that would, among other things, change the way California supervises parolees. As has been repeatedly documented in studies by panels and blue ribbon commissions since 1980, this state's parole system is a train wreck of inefficiency that crowds prisons, overwhelms parole officers and produces the nation's worst recidivism rate. The bill would help remedy that situation by reassessing parole status based on the risk an ex-convict poses to the public -- low-risk parolees would get less supervision and high-risk ones would get more. It reduces the ratio of parolees to parole officers from 70 to 1 to 45 to 1.

Does that mean dangerous sex offenders like Garrido would be left to their own devices? Hardly. Not only would they still be subject to monitoring, but their parole officers would have more time to focus on them because they wouldn't be overseeing nonviolent drug addicts.

The Assembly watered down a good prison bill previously passed by the state Senate, wasting the opportunity to create a commission that would reassess the determinate sentences that also contribute to prison overcrowding and undermine public safety. But the bill still makes the most significant changes to the state's corrections system in decades and is badly overdue. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should sign it.

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