Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

No Surprise: California Journalists Go with Fearmongering Instead of Contextualizing Recent Parole Reforms

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As I’ve noted before, California’s parole system is widely misunderstood by citizens throughout the state and too often the California press only exacerbates the confusion. Here’s the latest in the long line of fearmongering articles about released prisoners who go on to do bad things. In this case, the ex-prisoner in question is Alexander Diaz, a 36-year-old Cuban national released from Delano State Prison earlier this year who went on to steal a delivery van and drive it into a police officer on a motorcycle. Pursuant to recent reforms, Diaz had been among the recently released prisoners put on “non-revocable parole” (translation: no parole officer, no parole conditions, but still no Fourth Amendment rights), rather than full parole supervision:

On Tuesday, Diaz appeared in Alameda Superior Court for a preliminary hearing on charges of attempted murder and auto theft. If he is convicted, Diaz could return to prison for a long time.

Obviously, Diaz made a deplorable series of decisions that resulted in a terrible accident. (Thankfully, the police officer survived after intensive surgery for a compound leg fracture.) But is parole reform to blame? Here’s what’s not mentioned in the article:

1) In any other state, a released prisoner like Diaz would likely have been under no form of parole at all — until the recent reforms, California was the only state to place virtually all released prisoners, even those who’d served determinate sentences and were deemed “low-risk,” under post-release supervision by a parole officer for up to three years. Most states reserve parole supervision for prisoners released at the discretion of a parole board or “high-risk” offenders; a couple of states have abolished it altogether.

2) From a “tough-on-crime” perspective, the very fact that Diaz is now facing attempted murder charges could actually be seen to exemplify the benefits of the recent reforms. That’s because when regular parolees commit a new crime, California has a choice: prosecute the offense criminally, or treat it as a technical parole violation. Yes, even rape and murder can be treated as technical parole violations, and in fact they are in a surprising number of cases (PDF link), because it’s easier for the state: the burden of proof is lower, and the offender goes back to prison quicker. And, oh yeah, the offender gets right back out in a few months, because parole violations carry a maximum sentence of 1 year. (The average served is 4 months.)

In contrast, under the new system, when someone on non-revocable parole like Diaz commits a new crime, he must be prosecuted, if at all, through the regular criminal courts. Of course, an attempted murder charge carries much higher sentencing exposure than a technical parole violation. So, if Diaz ends up doing a long prison stint as a result of this latest offense, it will be, at least in part, because he was on non-revocable parole. Had he been on regular parole, he may well have been sent back for 3-4 months on a violation.

Now, of course there’s no way of knowing whether Diaz would have stayed out of trouble had he been kept on full parole, and/or been returned to prison earlier on some more minor violation. Considering the high case loads of California parole officers, it’s questionable how much supervision they can really offer. But so long as reporters are indulging in counterfactual speculation anyway, they could at least provide the full context.

The article does quote a few prisoners’ rights advocates to the effect that it’s unfortunate that parolees on non-revocable parole don’t have access to the (fairly minimal) reentry services that parole officers provide. That, of course, is an argument for providing more robust reentry programming, not for maintaining a bloated parole system that numerous state commissions, scholarly studies, etc., have concluded is a failure on every count and a key driver of California’s prison overcrowding crisis.

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