Parole Agents Struggle to Manage Caseloads

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This week, KPCC is considering the situation of prison inmates who return home. Each year, 60,000 men and women are paroled to the Los Angeles region. Parole agents help them re-enter society and stay out of trouble. Often, it's a bigger job than those agents can handle by themselves. In part two of our five-part series, KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports what's prompted calls for reform. (This series was produced by Frank Stoltze as part of a fellowship with USC's Institute for Justice and Journalism)

Frank Stoltze: Parole Agent Gibson is a muscular, bald man in his forties with a thick mustache.

Parole Agent Gibson: I'm retired from the military – you know, I had years of diving, jumping out of planes, and shooting guns. Wasn't a whole lot of opportunity for that after I retired.

Stoltze: Gibson – he prefers not to tell his first name for security reasons – became a prison guard. He didn't like it, so he decided to get a college degree. That's a requirement for parole officers. He's driving through Long Beach to check on one of his parolees.

Stoltze: How many guys are you watching right now?

Gibson: I don't even know, to be honest with you. 133. Yeah, it can be frustrating sometimes. ... Especially lately, they seem to count on the fact that they can kind of ignore what you tell them to do a little bit because it's going to take you so long to notice that they're not doing it. And you go, "Man, did ol' Smith go to that drug program? I better check on that! It's been, like a month! Nope, he didn't even show up."

Stoltze: Tom Hoffman is director of California Adult Parole Operations. He says rehabilitation wasn't always his agency's focus.

Tom Hoffman: We are in the midst of a tremendous cultural shift from largely supervision, monitoring, and enforcement, to one that strikes a balance between that and rehabilitation.

Stoltze: The issue driving reform: an exploding prison population. Driven by get-tough-on-crime laws, the incarceration rate in California has quadrupled over 30 years. That's busting the state's budget and creating what federal courts have called unconstitutionally inhumane conditions inside prisons.

In just six months last year, state parole agents sent 32,000 parolees back to prison for technical violations. That's a big part of the crowding problem, says UC Irvine Criminologist Joan Petersilia. She's a special advisor to Governor Schwarzenegger.

Joan Petersilia: This issue that we're talking about, getting parole violators out of prison, has been the major recommendation of every state panel since the 1980s, and yet we have never done it.

Stoltze: Officials are trying to figure out the appropriate sanctions for parole violations. They want to place non-violent, non-sex-offender parolees on summary parole – not under supervision, but subject to random police searches. And they want to allow parolees to earn their way off of supervision. Parole Chief Tom Hoffman says it's tricky to figure who needs parole and when.

Hoffman: We're in a very high risk business. I mean, we are asked to make clairvoyant judgments about human behavior. I've got a 19 year old I couldn't tell you what he's going to do this afternoon and be dead certain, and I raised him.

Stoltze: Other states release as many as half their felons unsupervised. The crime rates there aren't that different than California's. Phyliss MacNeal has been a parole agent for two decades. She says releasing low-risk parolees from supervision would allow her to focus on the ones who need the most help.

Phyliss MacNeal: You're so overwhelmed, you just want to take care of what's important, 'cause one parolee can cost you eight hours of a day just to get him housed at a substance abuse place.

Stoltze: MacNeal faults some agents for being too quick to send people back to prison. She notes that many agents are ex-prison guards.

MacNeal: Sometimes you get into the lockup mode ... they give up on them sometimes. But not all correctional officers are like that, but we have hired too many of them.

[Knocking on door]
Gibson: Hey.

Debbie MacDonald: Hi. I'm Debbie, MacDonald.

Gibson: How you doing, Debbie?

MacDonald: I'm good.

Gibson: What's your CDC?

MacDonald: W89156.

Gibson: She's disappeared on me a couple of times, this one. Kind of gone south on me a little bit, but she...

Stoltze: Parole Agent Gibson visits Debbie MacDonald, a heroin addict who's been in and out of prison four times. She's thankful Gibson sent her to the state's STAR drug program for parolees. Gibson's been a lot of help, she says, but personal choice played a role too.

MacDonald: It all depends on the person on parole. I mean, if they want to get off of it, and they're serious about it, then they're gonna do what they got to do. They're gonna do the right thing. We get ourselves into these positions, so we're the only ones that can get ourselves out of it.

Gibson: This is the best I've seen her. So will she make it? She seems to have a positive attitude. The STAR program seems to have made an impact. I think that's the second time I sent her through though. ... Our success isn't necessarily complete rehabilitation on this parole period. If that's how you measure success, it's going to be a little rough.

Stoltze: The veteran parole agent says sometimes just keeping someone out of prison a little longer than the last time they were in counts as progress.