Crowded conditions can be seen at Mule Creek State Prison. The warrant review… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
SACRAMENTO — State corrections officials are poised to drop the arrest warrants of thousands of parole violators, releasing them from state supervision at a time when their detention would complicate efforts to ease crowding in state and county lockups.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation intends to begin a massive review next week of more than 9,200 outstanding warrants, starting with individuals who were convicted of nonviolent crimes and absconded from supervision. Over the next eight months, parole field offices across the state will be given lists of missing felons, 200 at a time, to review and determine if retaining them on parole "would not be in the interest of justice."
The mass purge is an attempt to ease the burden on counties in July, when the state hands off responsibility for parole revocations to local courts, said agency spokesman Jeffrey Callison. Weeding out cases that are years old, or of parolees nobody is looking for, will make it easier to focus on those who pose a threat, he said.
It will not, Callison said, "allow some paroles to 'get off the hook.' "
"I have been told that discharging people is not the point of the exercise," he said Friday.
Which is exactly the claim of some victims' advocates who are infuriated by the state's so-called warrant review project.
"It's mass amnesty for felons," said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), a vocal opponent of Gov. Jerry Brown's plans to ease state prison crowding by shifting responsibility for low-level offenders to counties.
When inmates are released from state prison, they are required to report to a parole officer. When a felon does not appear, or disappears later, an arrest warrant is issued. With low-level offenders now serving time in county jails, the state's parole population is shrinking dramatically because those released from jail go to county probation, not state parole.
But the same law that shifted responsibility for low-level offenders also requires county courts to take over most revocation hearings for parole violators. The warrant review will remove many of those potential cases.
The plan calls for parole agents to review about 7,000 warrants against low-level offenders to determine if those parolees have violent offenses or multiple felonies, belong to gangs or committed new crimes. Agents will then decide whether to drop the warrant and release the felon from parole.
Once that review is completed, the agency may undertake a similar study of outstanding warrants against missing parolees who committed serious or violent offenses, indicating that they too might be released from state supervision.
Sexual offenders are excluded from the reviews.
Callison said the state has no idea how many parolees may be released from supervision. Nielsen, former chairman of the Board of Prison Terms, estimated it would be 70%.
"This is as close as just letting people go as we've come," said Todd Gillam, a Northern California parole agent and vice president of the Parole Agent Assn. of California.
Gillam said the mass reviews overlook the value of leaving outstanding warrants in law enforcement computer systems, especially for routine matters such as traffic stops. "The warrant is a warning, to alert the officer that this guy is a problem," he said.
Gillam and others said parole agents are under pressure to release felons from state supervision as soon as possible.
Those criticisms come as the corrections department reacted to a report in the Fresno Bee on Friday that the man who killed two people at a chicken processing plant in Fresno earlier this week, then killed himself, was released from parole over the objections of his parole agent. The gunman, Lawrence Jones, was freed from prison in June 2011 and discharged from parole in May, even though his parole agent deemed him a danger.
The state corrections department "greatly regrets the tragedy," spokesman Luis Patino said, "but it must be noted that Jones had been out in the community for almost a full year and a half when he apparently committed this heinous crime.... Neither CDCR, nor any other law enforcement agency, can guarantee that someone will not commit a crime out in the community once they have been released from prison."
The newspaper's report also came on the same day that the governor named a new state parole chief: Daniel Stone, a longtime agency employee and former parole officer. Stone's appointment over the Division of Adult Parole requires state Senate confirmation.