California struggles with paroled sex offenders
By Solomon Moore ESCONDIDO, CA -- Darrell Littleton calls them "his guys", but he does not trust them.
One got drunk and exposed himself to a jogger in a public park. Another was a fire captain until he molested his 13-year-old stepdaughter, went to prison and lost his wife, his job and his home. Now the man sleeps behind a drive-through restaurant.
Mr. Littleton is a parole agent, and “his guys,” about 40 in all, are paroled sex offenders. On a September morning, as he does each day, Mr. Littleton fired up his laptop computer to check on his charges; the signals from their global-positioning ankle bracelets trace dotted trails cutting through a Google satellite map. Mr. Littleton tracks them, calls them frequently and shows up unannounced to make sure they are behaving themselves. But they still struggle to stay straight.
One of his parolees recently harassed a teenage prostitute, and Mr. Littleton had to “violate him” — revoke his parole and return him to prison. Another promised Mr. Littleton that once he is off parole in a few months, and no longer subject to random drug testing, he is going to resume his marijuana habit. And before the day was over, another parolee would emerge as a suspect in a sexual assault on a 9-year-old girl.
“Twenty is really the ideal caseload for my guys,” Mr. Littleton said as he drove a high-riding pickup truck on one of several parolee visits he had planned that day. “With that kind of caseload, I could spend more time in the field and less in the office. With these guys, you don’t want them to know you’re coming. You need to watch them when they don’t know they’re being watched.”
A series of high-profile crimes involving parolees in California highlight the challenges of keeping track of them in a state that discharges more than 120,000 inmates annually, more than any other. Last month, two campus police officers at the University of California, Berkeley, became suspicious of a paroled sex offender named Phillip Garrido and called his parole officer, leading to Mr. Garrido’s arrest on charges of kidnapping Jaycee Dugard, now 29, in 1991, raping her and holding her captive in a backyard encampment. Like the sex offenders Mr. Littleton supervises, Mr. Garrido had been monitored by GPS and visited at his home at least twice a month by parole agents. But he was still able to keep his secret for 18 years. In July, a Los Angeles man on parole was arrested in the kidnapping and murder of a 17-year-old girl, and an Oakland parolee shot and killed four police officers before killing himself.
California is the only state that places all released prisoners on parole, no matter the seriousness of their crime. Even at a time of historically low violent crime, critics argue that overloading parole agents compromises public safety. Legislation passed this month will reduce the “average” caseloads for parole agents to 45, from 70, and nonviolent, less serious offenders will no longer be returned to prison for administrative infractions like missing counseling appointments, ditching parole agent visits or failing drug tests. Agents handling some of the most violent offenders, like Mr. Littleton’s parolees, will also see their caseloads reduced. Legislators argued that the law was necessary to reduce chronic prison overcrowding. Packed prisons thwart rehabilitation programs and medical treatment and incite riots on a regular basis, according to findings in federal civil rights cases against the California corrections system. The law was hard-won by the Democratic-controlled state legislature. Corrections officer unions, police organizations and prosecutors opposed it, arguing that even parolees convicted of nonviolent crimes were too dangerous to be left unsupervised.
Mr. Littleton said he thought parolees should be given incentives for early release and reduced supervision inside and outside of prison — G.E.D. courses, drug treatment programs and psychological counseling, for example. But providing services is one thing the legislation does not emphasize. In fact, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced $280 million in cuts this week to educational and rehabilitation programs inside prison. The cutbacks follow an 80 percent cut in Proposition 36, the state’s largest drug treatment diversion program, even though most parolees suffer from drug and alcohol addictions, mental illnesses and chronic unemployment. A University of California, Los Angeles, study showed that the program, approved by voters in 2000, treated 30,000 drug offenders a year in lieu of prison and saved $2 in taxes for every $1 invested in the program.
Michelle Jackson, a parole agent in Corona, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, who supervises 40 violent felons, said she would prefer to focus on the social work aspect of her job rather than the law enforcement role but sees few alternatives, even with the new legislation.
“Most programs won’t take my guys or they want them to pay, and all my parolees have very low-paying jobs,” she said. “They can’t afford a month’s worth of counseling.”
When Ms. Jackson visits Faafetai Niusila, 39, a muscular member of the Sons of Samoa gang, she chides him for his lack of chivalry toward his wife.
“Really? You’re going to let her carry the groceries by herself?” Ms. Jackson asked as she watched Mr. Niusila’s wife struggle to carry bags into their house. Mr. Niusila, who served 12 years in prison for attempted murder, hustled across the lawn to help. After Mr. Niusila, Ms. Jackson visited Shelton Miles, 38, who was on parole for shooting a man in 1991. He spent more than 10 years in prison.
“Does someone collect shot glasses?” Ms. Jackson asked warily as she spied them on a shelf. If Mr. Miles is caught abusing alcohol, his parole could be revoked.
“No, no,” he said. “My sons’ sports teams give them out.” Ms. Jackson said that in the absence of appropriate programs, she was more likely to revoke an offender’s parole. “If employment doesn’t work out, if staying home doesn’t work out, and they start using again or getting in trouble — even if it’s not another crime — we have to violate them to protect the community because we don’t know what will happen,” she said.
That uncertainty keeps Mr. Littleton thinking about his guys even when he is off the clock. Even a vigilant parole agent cannot keep parolees out of trouble every minute of every day, he said. Around the middle of his shift, Mr. Littleton received an alert that the police here in Escondido, a suburb of San Diego, were looking for a parolee supervised by his office named Ricardo Perez Borbon, 70, in connection with an assault on a 9-year-old girl. Mr. Borbon was on parole after serving 12 years for sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl. The signal from Mr. Borbon’s GPS anklet indicated that he had lingered near an elementary school an hour earlier and then had gone to his residential construction job before tampering with the homing device a few blocks away. Mr. Littleton gunned his truck toward the location to meet other agents. They found the anklet under a roadside cactus. Mr. Borbon was now a fugitive.
“We’ll be focusing on him now,” said Lindon Lewis, Mr. Littleton’s supervisor. “He has our full attention now.”
Mr. Littleton returned to his truck and clipped Mr. Borbon’s mug shot — slicked-back hair, a salt-and-pepper moustache, grim eyes with dark circles underneath — onto his sun visor. The parolee’s face looked down at him.
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