California Parole System Under Fire
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, we’ll look into mounting criticism of the state prison system’s monitoring of paroled sex offenders and spreading concern over the early release of prisoners, plus the new pregnancy and abortion confidentiality policy at city schools, and the rains came but San Diego’s winter homeless shelter closed this week. Why? The editors with us are Ricky Young, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. It’s good to see you again, Ricky.
RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning, Gloria. It’s nice to be back.
PENNER: Well, it’s nice to have you. And JW August, managing editor for 10News. Welcome back, JW.
JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Top o’ the morning to you, Gloria.
PENNER: Top o’ the morning. And Barbara Bry, associate publisher and opinion editor for SDNN.com. Always good to see you, Barbara.
BARBARA BRY (Assistant Publisher/Opinions Editor, SDNN.com): Great. Happy spring, Gloria.
PENNER: Thank you. It is, isn’t it? Our telephone number, if you’d like to join the conversation is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. The violent deaths of San Diego teenagers Chelsea King and Amber Dubois have focused public and media attention on how well the justice and prison systems restrict convicted sex offenders. Those systems are now under fire as new reports emerge about the history and habits of King’s accused killer John Gardner. So, Ricky, what have we learned about Gardner’s activities after he was paroled as a convicted sex offender that has stirred all this concern?
YOUNG: Well, at least seven times, Gloria, he violated his parole. He did things like live near a daycare center in Mira Mesa. He had the battery go down on his GPS monitor. There was a pot issue. And in none of these cases did it result in his return to prison. Now, that – those revelations came out a couple of weeks ago. This week at the Union-Tribune, we reported that he also had a MySpace page which was a violation of his parole requirement that he not have access to computers or communicate with people on computers or anything else. He called himself Jason Stud. He referred to himself as the Energizer Bunny. He said that his hometown was the Playboy mansion. He talked about sexual positions. A lot of things that some critics say had Parole been keeping an eye on him, he wouldn’t have been doing.
PENNER: Well, just specify what restrictions are actually imposed on these offenders after they’re released from prison and for how long?
YOUNG: There’s pages and pages of these restrictions and they check off certain ones for certain individuals. And in his case, there was the one about internet access. A lot of other things were banned as well. He can’t go on a date without approval from a parole agent, this sort of thing. You know, there were residency restrictions that said he couldn’t live within x-amount of, you know, he was paroled before Jessica’s Law went into effect but some of those Jessica Law type provisions were written into his parole conditions.
PENNER: Okay, before I turn to you, JW, I’d like to ask our listeners about this. Okay, now you’ve heard what the transgressions were that were committed by John Gardner and the fact that he was on parole and yet he was not returned to prison. I’d like to have your opinion this. And, JW, I’d like to have your opinion on this as well. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. So it seems that every day there’s another story about how Gardner’s parole was mismanaged. How does the parole board explain this?
AUGUST: I don’t think they’re – Well, you know, they blame not enough resources, we don’t have enough money, etcetera, etcetera, which is – it’s the refrain we hear all the time but it’s the reality. They don’t – the money is a big issue in this. In fact, money’s a big issue in all your topics today when you think about it. But it’s an issue for the system. I think a lot of the laws are in place but they don’t have the people to enforce them. But speaking of this – the story that the U-T broke on MySpace, I – The other parole violations, I was giving the system the benefit of a doubt. I’m thinking, yeah, they’re busy, you know. I didn’t like it. But this, there is no excuse for any sex predator to have access to an internet and put a website up. That is ridiculous. I mean, if this private eye who found it was able to find it, the state should have found it. Everybody that studies sex predators, involved with enforcement of sex predators, will tell you the internet is verboten. They shouldn’t have access to the internet because that’s how they reach out to a lot of victims. I think if they’d have found this, he would have never killed her.
BRY: Well, you…
AUGUST: Or allegedly killed her.
PENNER: Barbara Bry.
BRY: Well, I was just going to say we can’t convict this man. He’s the – he’s accused. He’s not yet convicted.
PENNER: Right, right.
PENNER: But he is a convicted sex offender.
BRY: Yes, he is…
BRY: …a convicted sex offender and the MySpace page was very upsetting. You know, we spent $8 billion in this state on prisons and apparently it’s still not enough.
BRY: We spend $36 billion on K-thru-12 education just to put it in perspective. You know, I agree with JW, this – it is largely a money issue and, you know, the citizens of California are going to have to decide, given the resources of the state, what they want to spend money on and whether they’re willing to, you know, have their taxes raised.
PENNER: So are you saying that it all lies at the feet of how much money this costs and not at the feet of mismanagement?
BRY: I think it’s both in this case. You know, how you use the resources you have is very important and probably the state has not used technology as well as it could to monitor websites like MySpace.
PENNER: Well, how could it be, Ricky, that it’d just be this one case? I mean, is John Gardner’s case sort of isolated or does it tell us that if there’s a John Gardner with mismanaged parole out there, this is just the tip of the iceberg?
YOUNG: Well, in regards to what Barbara said—and this fits into it—regardless of whether he actually went on to kill Chelsea King or not, the handling of his parole raises questions about how, you know, how parolees are handled. And those questions are causing a lot of calls for reform, quote, unquote, and those reforms would all mean spending more money. So the problem you already have on the one end of the prisons not having enough money to do what they’re already supposed to do are going to get exacerbated when Nathan Fletcher and his strong and emotion allies, Brent and Kelly King, are done getting their measures through the legislature.
PENNER: Explain who Nathan Fletcher is.
YOUNG: Nathan Fletcher’s the Assemblyman who represents the area where Chelsea King lived, and he has locked arms with Brent and Kelly King, her parents, in a very emotional push to get – to strengthen, and I assume that would mean spend more money on, keeping this from happening again. They’ve started – they have a very active Facebook page where they’re encouraging people to send blue ribbons to Sacramento, sort of a symbolic gesture saying, hey, let’s not let this happen again.
PENNER: Well, since we’re on the politicians, the case has been so publicly scruitinized, JW, and it’s attracted the attention, as we know, of local politicians like Nathan Fletcher. What is their motivation for jumping in?
AUGUST: Ooohh… Well…
PENNER: You should see the look on JW’s face.
AUGUST: What I’d like to really say I cannot say or you’ll never invite me back. But I think, for the most part, they’re pure of heart politicians that find some emotional issue and attach themselves to the victims of some terrible crime that takes place. I’m sure Mr. Fletcher has nothing but good thoughts and good deeds on his mind, however, I am concerned when they beat the drum loudly on an emotional thing. They try to drive legislation through during a tempest instead of taking a deep breath, let’s look at everything, what are the laws on the books now? Why aren’t they effective? Let’s face it, Jessica’s Law came on, it was supposed to solve everything when it came on the books. It has done nothing. It is only something for politicians to brag about they were involved with the, you know, this law. Why, by golly, we have Jessica’s Law. That law has done nothing.
PENNER: Explain very briefly what Jessica’s…
AUGUST: It’s the 1,000 foot law.
PENNER: A thousand feet from a…
AUGUST: Parks, schools…
PENNER: …school, library…
PENNER: Umm-hmm. Right.
AUGUST: It does absolutely nothing.
PENNER: It doesn’t.
AUGUST: And I’m concerned that they’ll do a lot of this grandstanding, some politicians would on an issue like this, and use it to advance their own career when the bottom line is we should be looking out for the populace and the innocent people and the children and our population, and we should do it smartly, wisely, thoughtfully.
PENNER: Well, it is possible that major changes, if there are going to be major changes to the whole way that we deal with sex offenders, might get to a vote of the public, and so I want to ask our listeners, if it does get to a vote and there are major changes, major restrictive changes, how will you deal with resisting overreaction and not voting because of the fact of all of the publicity and all of the – some of the extreme responses that we are getting. 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Barbara and then Ricky.
BRY: Yes. Gloria, as Ricky mentioned earlier, if existing laws had been followed, John Gardner – John Gardner violated his parole provisions but apparently that was not enforced and it was probably a combination of money and mismanagement so you didn’t – you don’t need a new law to have, you know, found that John Gardner was in violation of parole violations. I would like to see every initiative or every new piece of legislation have a price tag attached to it. You know, if we pass this legislation, how much more is it going to cost the taxpayers and who is – how are we going to come up with that money?
PENNER: Sometimes, you know, it’s dollars versus lives and that’s what people look at. Let’s go our phones and take a call from Norm in Imperial Beach. Hi, Norm, you’re on with the editors.
NORM (Caller, Imperial Beach): Yes, I – It occurred to me that this particular person in question is barking, absolutely barking mad, and should never have gone to a prison but should’ve gone to a institution for the criminally insane. The man is, you know, barking mad.
NORM: And to even endanger the prison population with him to put him into a prison – Now in a institution for the criminally insane, there is no time limit on how long he can be held. And he’s an obviously dangerous and very ill person.
PENNER: Thank you, Norm. Ricky.
YOUNG: Well, Gloria, a lot of our coverage early on focused on parole but lately we’ve been focused on the Department of Mental Health as well, and they do the screenings to determine whether somebody goes down the process to a commitment like the caller is suggesting. Jessica’s Law caused a tenfold increase in their caseload, in the number of cases referred to them from prisons.
PENNER: Them meaning…?
YOUNG: The Department of Mental Health.
YOUNG: So they screen those cases but they, you know, ten times as many cases are coming to them and that’s caused a concurrent increase in the number of cases they reject. So the tenfold increase has not really resulted in more commitments and you see a lot of the same factors there where the Department of Mental Health has sort of a conflict where if they decide to commit someone, they have to find a way to pay for that. And committing someone costs four times as much as keeping them in prison.
PENNER: Ricky, wasn’t there a report that John Gardner was actually seen by a psychiatrist who said this is a dangerous man and…
YOUNG: Two times the prison psychologists sent him for evaluation to the Department of Mental Health saying that we think he may be too dangerous to let out, and two times the Department of Mental Health said, no, we disagree. And, again, they have this financial conflict where if they did send him down the road to commitment, they would have to pay for that. So…
PENNER: So this is sort of backing up what you were saying, that with the increase in load, they’re kind of loathe to accept everybody who’s sent their way.
YOUNG: Right, it’s the same dynamic as the prisons are facing.
PENNER: Okay, so what we’re going to do now is take a very short break and when we come back, we’re going to talk with our listeners who want to be part of the conversation. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. And with me at the roundtable, we have Barbara Bry from SDNN and we have – dot-com, and, let’s see – Yeah, we have JW August back, too, from 10News, and Ricky Young from San Diego Union-Tribune, and the listeners as well who want to become part of this conversation. We’re talking about the parole violations of sex offender John Gardner, who is accused, at this point, of killing Chelsea King. And the fact that he was not returned to jail and to prison and what that really says about the system. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Let’s start right out with Liz in North Park. Hi, Liz, you’re on with the editors.
LIZ (Caller, North Park): Hi. I was listening to you guys a few minutes ago talking about just how awful it was that John Gardner had a MySpace page and I thought it was really – I thought at least what you mentioned for his MySpace page sounds like something my 17- or 18-year-old little cousins would have up on MySpace. I mean, it just sounded very – it sounded very typical and I sort of wondered if you guys know about what kind of enforcement mechanisms, realistic enforcement mechanisms, you could – that could be put in place to keep sex offenders off the internet because I find it really hard to imagine keeping someone who wanted to be off the internet (sic) off the internet.
PENNER: Yeah, I think, Liz, you have a really good question there because there are 600,000 registered sex offenders in the nation, and I’m wondering, along with Liz, what are the challenges to monitoring their every move online, in the community, in their homes but now we’re talking online. Ricky.
YOUNG: Well, I just wanted to say first, in terms of Liz’s cousin, you know, there may not be anything terribly unusual about what Gardner had on his MySpace page. Only in hindsight does it kind of seem a little creepy. But Liz’s cousin is probably not on parole. And when you’re on parole, there are certain limitations that you accept in exchange for getting out of prison. And the way that’s typically enforced or should be enforced, according to some retired parole agents we’ve spoken with, is they’ll search the home routinely to look for computers. They – And they have ways they can check using, you know, the internet to do searches. They have a little more access to things than you would on Google to pin stuff down. And the example we used in our story was this PI who had access to a service and was simply demonstrating it at a presentation last week in Los Angeles and he said, here, let’s plug John Gardner’s name in and, you know, up popped the MySpace page that the parole agents were unaware of. You know, but the retired parole agents we speak with say they have access to technology that would’ve turned that up.
PENNER: And they do.
PENNER: All right. Let’s – Thank you very much. Meanwhile…
YOUNG: The question the Corrections people have not really answered for us is how often do they use that technology and what kind of checks do they routinely make?
PENNER: Right, and I guess it gets back to the money situation again. You know, if we don’t have enough agents we can’t do enough checking. And, truly, with the state’s budget crisis and the overcrowded prison conditions, how likely is it that more criminals, even sex offenders, will be kept in prison rather than granted early parole to ease those conditions with less oversight? Barbara.
BRY: Well, you know, in January new rules went into effect to, you know, release a number of prisoners early because of the state budget issues, and they’re trying to only release people who aren’t, you know, violent or sex offenders and who have a probability of a low rate of recidivism. Whether they’re doing that effectively is unclear. I’ve read, you know, news reports, you know, that say that, you know, actually some potentially violent people are being released early.
PENNER: Well, we are hearing from some groups such as Crime Victims United who are opposed to early release programs. What’s their concern?
AUGUST: That the bad…
AUGUST: Well, the bad guys are getting out in the community and that this law that was passed in January is not effective. And the problem is this, I don’t think they – You have to really look at every single prisoner you release because it’s a very slippery slope. Somebody could be – been accused – might have had a charge of attempted rape and had it pled down to a misdemeanor and so they’ll release them because it shows he’s a misdemeanor. And that requires some checking, in-depth look at each case, and I’m not sure they’re doing that. The AP had a story last couple days about some people with some serious crimes being released in the program.
BRY: Although, Gloria, the – one of the news reports said that, you know, a lot of people who are sent back to prison are sent back to prison for parole violations. Whether it’s parole violations like a John Gardner or whether it’s, you know, someone who, you know, you know, has – wrote a fraudulent check, you know, there’s all diff – and didn’t show up for their parole meeting, you know, we don’t know.
PENNER: Right, okay. Let’s take one more call here from Eleanor in Hillcrest. Hi, Eleanor, you’re on with the editors.
ELEANOR (Caller, Hillcrest): Yeah, I agree with your first caller about John Gardner being a seriously mentally disturbed person who should have been supervised by the mental health program. He was classified as a number two on a scale of ten, which is inconceivable to me. I worked for the mental health system in a program called the Conditional Release Program and we supervised sexual offenders and that was in the late eighties and early nineties, and they were heavily supervised and had to live in residential settings where the supervision took place at least once a month and they had to participate in a therapy program, including group therapy, and they were not released until they came before a judge in the Superior Court and our findings were presented to the judge. John Gardner should have been in that system and not in the criminal justice system.
PENNER: So, Ricky, whose responsibility is it to make a decision as to which system an offender goes into?
YOUNG: Well, it starts with the prison system and they make a recommendation using this form the caller’s referring to called the Static-99. And on that checklist John Gardner scored a two out of ten. We had a story on the front page about that yesterday and subsequently heard that Jeffrey Dahmer also scored a two out of ten on that same measurement.
YOUNG: So it may be a somewhat flawed measurement, and they use some other tools as well. And they have been referring a lot more cases by Jessica’s Law to Department of Mental Health but there’s – there is, I think, a systemic problem with dealing with the overload of cases.
PENNER: JW, do we know what the position of the powerful prison guards’ union is on the early release program? Have they taken a position?
AUGUST: I’ve not read anything about them…
PENNER: Have you, Barb…
AUGUST: …but I’m sure they’re thinking about it.
BRY: I haven’t read anything but I would assume they wouldn’t like anything that might reduce their hours.
AUGUST: Yeah, I would say so.
PENNER: Ricky, any idea at all?
YOUNG: Yeah, I’m not sure about that. I do think it’s an interesting dynamic where there’s these giant calls for reform, which would mean spending more money and recrowding the prisons at the same time as, you know, the prisons can’t fit the people they have and they have miscellaneous programs that are letting people out and/or changing their parole provisions so that they would have, quote, irrevocable parole, in other words you couldn’t put them back in prison. So…
PENNER: Okay, well, at this point we need to switch subjects so we can get to some of our other topics. But we have a lot of people who want to comment and so what I’d like to urge you to do is go to KPBS—let’s see—.org/editors and that’s on our website, and you’ll be able to get in touch with us. Let’s move on.