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State seeks to cut some parole terms

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- The Schwarzenegger administration is set to launch a program in Southern California that ultimately could free tens of thousands of ex-convicts from parole years earlier than scheduled.

Officials said the plan, expected to be approved by the state parole board Tuesday, would start in Orange and San Bernardino counties within two months and focus on nonviolent state parolees. It would encourage rehabilitation and enable overburdened parole agents to focus on serious offenders, especially sexual predators, they said.

Corrections Secretary James E. Tilton said in an interview that the trial program, which if successful could expand statewide early next year, would bring California in line with 33 other states in screening parolees to determine which most need to be monitored after completing their prison terms.

Under the plan, parolees could be discharged after six months.

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It would free more parole agents to monitor paroled sex offenders as required under the voter-approved law that determines where they may live.

The state corrections department requires that each officer supervise no more than 20 sex offenders, who wear monitoring devices so they can be tracked by satellite, to make sure they don’t live near or visit places frequented by children.

The department has parolees “who we believe have all the characteristics to be successful,” Tilton said. “Then it allows us to apply those resources to those folks who really need the increased effort.”

Screening would start with about 1,700 of the 4,100 state parolees now living in one parole district.

Excluding violent and sexual offenders and gang members, the state will evaluate candidates according to the type of crime for which they are on parole, along with their criminal history, behavior on parole and other factors.

Officials said less than half of the 1,700 would probably gain approval for shortened parole. The state parole board would have to approve anyone chosen.

The district encompasses Anaheim, Chino, Chino Hills, Fontana, Garden Grove, Montclair, Mount Baldy Village, Ontario, Orange, Placentia, Rancho Cucamonga, Upland, Villa Park and the unincorporated areas of El Modena and San Antonio Heights.

California has 127,000 parolees under supervision by the state. A parolee must remain under supervision for at least a year, and there is no process to assess suitability for early discharge.

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Advocates for changing the system say that California, in requiring parole for all prisoners regardless of the offense, encourages recidivism because those who commit nonviolent crimes are often sent back to prison for minor violations. Among other states, only Illinois requires all prisoners to be on parole.

Joan Petersilia, a professor of criminology at UC Irvine who advises Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on prison issues, said the state’s system uses a “cookie cutter” approach that treats all parolees the same. It confuses them about whether they will get sent back to prison for minor or major violations, and wastes resources devoted to programs that could help ex-convicts rejoin society because there is no incentive to attend them, she said.

The state’s pilot program would motivate them to attend the programs with the prospect of ending their parole sooner, she said.

“We’ve got to learn to use our treatment resources,” she said. “If you talk to parolees and say, ‘What would engage you? What will make it work for you?’ . . . Most of us wouldn’t go to college if we didn’t have the promise that you would eventually get a degree.”

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In tackling parole, Schwarzenegger, a Republican, is returning to a focus aimed at rehabilitation of prisoners that his administration has flirted with and backed away from in the past. In an earlier attempt, parolees committing certain violations were sent for treatment instead of going back to prison; that was aborted in 2005 after opposition from victims’ groups and correction officers.

Two study groups commissioned by Schwarzenegger have endorsed similar measures to shorten parole. One, led by former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, suggested discharging some parolees after three months.

Now, as a three-judge panel appears to be poised to cap the inmate population, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says it is taking steps to use its resources more efficiently and to consider the risk that former inmates pose when managing their parole.

Officials said they are attempting to coordinate more closely with victims’ families and providing better transition from prison to parole. They are also trying to develop a strategy for deciding when to revoke parole and when treatment is more appropriate.

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Still, any move to reduce supervision of ex-convicts is likely to be controversial, and word of the new initiative was met with caution and scorn.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), who is active on criminal justice issues and heads a legislative committee on prisons, said he had been briefed on the plan but would not know what to make of it until he could see the details.

“I want to be cooperative, and I’ve assembled a team to work with corrections,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who still want to weigh in about exactly how it’s going to be implemented.”

The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., which is warring with Schwarzenegger over pay increases and other issues, mocked the proposal. Ryan Sherman, a spokesman for the guards union, said it was an attempt to reduce the prison population and please judges by letting parolees off early so they are not sent back.

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He said they would go on to commit new crimes.

“Law enforcement will go crazy over this,” Sherman said. “It’s horrible public policy.”

And Nina Salarno-Ashford of Crime Victims United of California, a group that has received financial support from the union, said she thought the category of crimes the state calls nonviolent is too broad. That could lead to inappropriate parolees being selected to finish early, she said.

But Tom Hoffman, director of the state’s Division of Adult Parole Operations, said officials planned to proceed slowly and handle things properly. He said the criteria are strict and allow for the input of agents who know parolees well.

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The six-month period is twice as long as Deukmejian’s reports recommended for the state’s minimum parole period, he said, and the state will not expand the program until officials see how the trial works.

“We really want to take a conservative approach to this,” Hoffman said.

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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