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Violent Convicts Got Unsupervised Parole, Audit Says

California state prison officials are scrambling to explain why 450 dangerous criminals were mistakenly placed on unsupervised parole.
 
 
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A state audit that found prison officials allowed 450 violent convicts to be placed on unsupervised parole last year prompted a sharp exchange between the department of corrections and the inspector general’s office.

A report released yesterday by Inspector General Bruce Monfross blamed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for improperly evaluating 1,500 inmates using an automated risk-assessment program developed by researchers at UC Irvine. The inmates included 450 dangerous criminals who were mistakenly place on unsupervised – or non-revocable – parole.

The program to allow some parolees to forgo supervision by a state agent was created in 2009 as part of a broader effort to reduce the number of low-level offenders being returned to prison for technical violations. Parole violators cycling in and out of the system cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and are a major source of overcrowding.

Corrections officials say they rely on computers rather than humans to determine safety risks posed by inmates and parolees because they are required to conduct more than 270,000 assessments each week. The inspector general found the department’s electronic assessments were wrong for 23.5 percent of the nearly 10,000 inmates considered for unsupervised parole in a six-month period last year.

"It is therefore probable that some of the discharged parolees inappropriately placed on non-revocable parole would have violated their parole conditions and returned to prison, had they been on supervised parole," the report states.

The findings drew a strong rebuke from corrections' top brass.

"Our concern with this report goes beyond its relevancy; in fact we must also take issue with its facts and central conclusion," wrote Lee Seale, deputy chief of staff to corrections Secretary Matthew Cate, in a letter released yesterday.

Seale complained the report relied on "obsolete" data, brushed aside improvements to the program and ignored other reforms carried out by the department – such as re-entry courts for parolees and updates to sentencing laws – that have “helped to successfully reduce the crowding rate in our prisons to the same level seen two decades ago.” 

Seale also pointed out that supervision of non-violent offenders will be transferred to local agencies if Governor Jerry Brown's realignment plan gets funding. Against such a backdrop, Seale wrote the release of the inspector general’s report was “unfortunate.”

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is under a federal court order to reduce the adult prison population by about 30,000 inmates within two years. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that order earlier this week.

Overhauling parole is widely seen as a key element in any downsizing plan. However, according to the department’s data, non-revocable parole has not yet delivered on its promise. While corrections officials originally projected some 24,000 inmates could be placed into the program, only 13,331 were on non-revocable parole as of May 20. Data on the program's impact on recidivism rates is not yet available.

In his letter, Seale went on to defend the department’s use of computers to determine the risk posed by inmates by scanning the rap sheets of "more than 160,000 inmates in our prisons and more than 100,000 offenders on parole.” Seale said the automated assessments saved the department “a significant amount of money.”

In response, Monfross said that while he appreciated the department’s “desire" to save money, it “should not compromise public safety in doing so, as it does by understating offenders’ risk of re-offending and releasing high-risk offenders to unsupervised parole.”

Michael Montgomery is a reporter and radio producer for the Center for Investigative Reporting and its California Watch unit. He is also a contributor to KQED Public Radio and American RadioWorks.

 
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