SACRAMENTO, Calif. — More than 250 state prison inmates freed without supervised parole under a new California law were convicted of crimes considered violent or threatening, according to prison records obtained as part of an inquiry by state lawmakers. A handful are sex offenders.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state corrections officials said the law, passed last year, was designed to improve public safety by concentrating parole supervision on the most dangerous felons. Allowing those convicted of lesser offenses to go unsupervised after their release would mean fewer people being sent back to prison for parole violations, reducing the inmate population and saving the state money.
Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate and state lawmakers repeatedly said that only nonviolent offenders – mostly those convicted of white collar, property and drug crimes – would be freed without monitoring. At the time the law took effect on Jan. 25, Cate promised it would not lead to dangerous felons being unsupervised after their release.
"If you're a serious offender, you're ineligible. If you're a violent offender, you're ineligible. If you're a sex offender, you're ineligible. All that's defined," he said during a news conference the day the law took effect.
The department's own records paint a picture that conflicts with Cate's pledge, although most do not appear to violate the strict letter of the law. A corrections spokesman said the problem is with the law, not with the way the department has handled the releases.
Of the 1,944 convicts left without supervision in the first five weeks after the law took effect Jan. 25, 96 were in jail for possessing weapons or explosives and 120 served time for stalking, domestic violence and child neglect, abduction or cruelty. A smaller number served time for more serious offenses, including sex crimes, false imprisonment, battery and involuntary manslaughter.
Two state lawmakers have introduced a bill seeking to maintain parole supervision for inmates convicted of several of those offenses. They plan to announce the legislative language as early as Wednesday.
"These are multiple crimes that the public would be horrified to know the department considers nonserious or nonviolent," said Assemblyman Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, who obtained the list through the California Public Records Act and shared it with The Associated Press.
Most of the unsupervised releases contained in the corrections department records do not violate the letter of the law, which excludes certain crimes such as rape or inmates with a history of such offenses. But Lieu and state Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-Lodi, want to expand the list of crimes for which inmates would be ineligible for unsupervised parole, saying it will close a dangerous loophole.
The list would include solicitation of murder, stalking, domestic violence and gang activity. Lieu, who is running for attorney general this year, said he will add more offenses later.
The bill by Lieu and Huber would let local law enforcement officials object to releasing specific criminals without oversight.
"Parole supervision has been shown to have a deterrent effect, and we just removed it for thousands of state prisoners," Lieu said.
Oscar Hidalgo, a corrections department spokesman, said the releases did not violate the law and that lawmakers can makes changes if they want.
"When we say nonserious, nonviolent and non-sex offender, we follow the penal code," he said. "The Legislature had determined what is a violent, what is a serious and what is a sex offense, not the department."
According to the department's records, one of the former inmates released on unsupervised parole this year had been convicted of oral copulation with a minor, which should have excluded him from the program under the law.
Hidalgo said the specific circumstances of the case led the department to consider it nonserious, nonviolent and not an excludable sex offense under the law. The case involved consensual contact with a 16- or 17-year-old, he said, adding that he didn't know the age of the perpetrator.
Seventeen others had been convicted of statutory rape, 16 were convicted of false imprisonment, seven of battery, three for involuntary manslaughter, three for burning inhabited structures and one for soliciting murder.
The law prohibits sending the ex-convicts back to prison unless they are convicted of new crimes. They can be searched at will by law enforcement until their unsupervised parole ends after one year, but otherwise they do not have to report to parole agents.
It also gives corrections officials discretion, prohibiting the discharge of those deemed to be at high risk of committing new crimes regardless of other criteria.
The parole provision is designed to reduce the state inmate population by 6,500 and save $500 million in its first year. It is separate from other portions of the law that also have drawn attention, including early releases of inmates from state prisons and county jails.
An Associated Press report last week showed that hundreds of inmates being released early from county jails also had been convicted of violent offenses.
California had been one of only two states, along with Illinois, that monitors every ex-convict on parole. The law was projected to reduce the average caseload of a parole agent from 70 to 48 parolees.
Because of that, Cate said the law would increase public safety "by focusing our resources on high-risk offenders, serious offenders, violent offenders and sex offenders."