Archive for April, 2010

Calif. freeing some violent inmates

Posted on April 1, 2010. Filed under: California State Budget, Crime, Parole, Politics |

By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer

Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 12:25 p.m.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Inmates convicted of violent crimes are among those being freed early from California jails to save money, despite lawmakers’ promises that they would exclude most dangerous prisoners and sex offenders.

An Associated Press review of inmate data shows that some of the freed criminals were convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, battery, domestic violence, and attacks on children and the elderly.

The early release program specifically forbids authorities from freeing prisoners convicted of about 150 crimes such as rape and murder. But any offense that is not specifically listed qualifies for release, and individual counties can then decide who gets out.

“This bill not only theoretically will result in a public safety catastrophe, it already has,” said Democratic Assemblyman Ted Lieu, an outspoken opponent of the system who is running for attorney general. He wants to expand the list of excluded crimes.

The release of violent offenders does not technically violate the law, but it runs counter to lawmakers’ promises about the plan when it was adopted.

Legislators approved the early release program last year as a way to cut costs and reduce crowding in state prisons and county jails.

At the time, both the Democratic Assembly Speaker, Karen Bass, and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger described the measure as a reform that would protect public safety while saving as much as $1 billion. Both denied that it even contained early release provisions.

But when the law took effect in January, the release of hundreds of inmates from local jails drew a swift backlash, especially after an inmate freed under the law was arrested within a day on suspicion of attempting to rape a female counselor.

The Sacramento County inmate had been jailed for a probation violation, but his underlying offense was assault with a deadly weapon.

During the first few weeks of the early release program, more than 1,800 jail inmates were released statewide before they had served their full sentences, according to the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

Hundreds more have been freed since then, although the association has stopped keeping track.

California is not the only state to seek savings in early releases. New or expanded release programs began last year in a dozen other states: Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Texas, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Gov. Pat Quinn suspended Illinois’ program in December after the AP found hundreds of inmates were being released too early. About 200 of the paroled inmates were returned to prison within the first four months of the program because of violations.

In California, the AP used public-records requests to obtain lists of inmates who had been freed from several of the state’s most populous counties. The lists were then cross-referenced with inmates’ offenses.

Three of those counties – Alameda, Orange and San Bernardino – account for roughly 15 percent of the state prison population. The lists covered the first 2 1/2 weeks of the early release program, which started Jan. 25.

In Orange County, about 8 percent of the 278 inmates released early had been serving time for crimes that included assault, battery, corporal injury to a spouse, inflicting injury on a child, cruelty to a child, domestic violence, resisting arrest and possession of a switchblade.

In Alameda County, 15 percent of the 87 inmates released early had been sentenced for those crimes and others, including carrying concealed or loaded guns, attempting to take a gun from a police officer and displaying a gun in a threatening manner.

San Bernardino County provided jail records for 642 inmates released under the new law. The AP used booking numbers to link a 10 percent sample to court records. Of that sample, 29 percent had been convicted of crimes considered violent or threatening, from domestic violence and weapons charges to stalking and injury to an elder.

Los Angeles County, which has the largest population of jail inmates, has not granted any early releases under the law, although it has recently begun freeing inmates because it is running out of space.

At state prisons, corrections officials expect to save $500 million by granting early release to about 6,500 inmates this year. Most of those releases will not begin until later this year.

The law did not provide direction to county jails about how to evaluate inmates who qualify for early release.

“Some are no-brainers,” said Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. J.D. Nelson. With others, “It’s a slippery slope. Sometimes you have an attempted rape, but it’s pleaded down to a misdemeanor. So now you’re going to let that guy out early?”

Lieu wants to amend the law to exclude many of the crimes identified in the AP’s research, as well as offenses such as solicitation to commit murder, various hate crimes and child abduction.

After the attempted rape arrest in Sacramento County, the Legislature also began considering amendments to the law, including a proposal to exclude county jails entirely from the early releases.

Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, a Democrat from Fremont who helped write the law and also is running for attorney general, said it was never supposed to apply to counties. When it passed in September, he praised the legislation as “a smart reform package.”

The Associated Press

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Gardner had MySpace page despite parole rule

Posted on April 1, 2010. Filed under: Crime, Parole |

Accused killer’s terms of release banned use of the Internet

By Jeff McDonald, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Originally published March 31, 2010 at 6:18 p.m., updated March 31, 2010 at 8:44 p.m.

His screen name was Jason the Stud, and he called himself the Energizer Bunny. He used sexually charged language when describing his interests. He listed his hometown as the Playboy Mansion and he called love “one big ugly compromise of two people pretending not to know what the other is doing.”

John Albert Gardner III, the convicted sex offender now accused of raping and killing Poway teenager Chelsea King, opened a MySpace page in December 2007 — even though according to terms of his parole he was not allowed anywhere near a computer.

State prison officials said they were not aware Gardner was active on any social networking site while he was under their supervision from 2005 until September 2008.

When presented with printouts of the material and an e-mail account linked to Gardner’s Escondido address after a legislative hearing in Poway today, they pledged to review the information and add it to an ongoing investigation.

“If this is an issue, we’re going to make sure (the Sex Offender Management Board) addresses it,” said Oscar Hidalgo of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has directed the sex-offender board to review how effectively the prison agency supervised Gardner. The 30-year-old convicted sex offender is known to have violated parole conditions seven other times but was never sent back to prison.

Lawmakers and others have criticized the state prison system for failing to properly monitor Gardner, whose violations included living in Mira Mesa too close to a day-care center and letting the battery run low on his electronic monitor.

In a 2007 addendum to the release conditions for John Albert Gardner III related to computer use, Gardner initialed both conditions. He opened a MySpace account three months later. (Click image above to see a larger version.)

Gardner’s MySpace account was discovered by Robert Scott, a Los Angeles private investigator who operates an online data-retrieval service called Skip Smasher. It was taken down tonight after this story was first posted online.

Scott said he was demonstrating his service to potential clients at a workshop last week and plugged Gardner’s name into one of his search engines. An e-mail account registered to the suspect popped up.

The Los Angeles investigator was quickly able to link the e-mail address to the MySpace account. Just as quickly, he was able to confirm that it belonged to the accused killer by matching Gardner’s date of birth, Escondido address and postings from a girlfriend.

“If we were able to find his MySpace page, then (parole agents) should have been able to find his MySpace page,” Scott said. “That’s what they’re getting paid to do. That’s what their job is.”

In addition to Skip Smasher, two other online data services confirmed Gardner’s connection to the Yahoo e-mail account used to open the social-networking account, according to documents obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Gardner was convicted of molesting a 13-year-old girl in Rancho Bernardo in 2000. He served five years in prison and was paroled in September 2005.

It is not clear from the parole records released to date whether Gardner was prohibited from using computers between 2005 and 2007. But in an addendum to his release conditions dated Sept. 25, 2007, Gardner was told: “You shall not use, possess or have access to any electronic or computer equipment that is attached to a modem” and “You shall not use a computer to communicate with others.”

Gardner initialed both conditions before signing the bottom of the six-page addendum. His MySpace account was opened three months later.

Robert Ambroselli, the state director of parole operations, looked at copies of Gardner’s MySpace page after a state Assembly committee hearing in Poway today and said he would need time to review the materials before making any public statement.

“This is the first I’m seeing of this,” he said.

Hidalgo, the prisons’ assistant secretary for communications, said field agents work to enforce all parole conditions but declined to elaborate. He said the agency could not immediately verify the authenticity of the records.

Advocates for children and former parole agents say a fundamental element of properly supervising a convicted sex offender is making sure they are not using computers.

“Social-networking and other Internet sites provide sex offenders an easy opportunity to connect with kids in a low-risk way where they can be virtually anonymous,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

“The challenge is you have to keep looking,” said Allen, who sent a team to San Diego to help in the search for Chelsea before her body was found near Lake Hodges five days after she disappeared. “A lot of offenders come up with new e-mail addresses.”

Retired parole agent Caroline Aguirre said she always scoured sex offender homes for evidence of Internet. She also said every parole office has access to technology experts to help them conduct Internet searches like the one Skip Smashers performed.

“Parole agents just have to get out there and do it,” said Aguirre, a Los Angeles agent who retired in 2007. “Most of these contacts you’re seeing across the nation are from people getting on the Internet and luring girls to different locations.”

Executives from social-networking sites are well aware that their products are used by sex offenders.

In 2007, MySpace announced it was purging almost 30,000 accounts created by registered sex offenders. But with more than 600,000 registered sex offenders across the nation, and the population growing every day, it is difficult to exclude them completely.

Gardner’s MySpace page

States are beginning to regulate computer use by convicted sex offenders too.

In December, Facebook and MySpace closed accounts for more than 3,500 sex offenders in New York State, according to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The action was taken under a state law known as e-STOP, the Electronic Securing and Targeting of Online Predators Act, which bans sex offenders from using social-networking sites and requires them to register all e-mail addresses with the state.

In the weeks since Chelsea was killed, several politicians across California have pledged to pass similar legislation.

Gardner’s MySpace page lists “CSI” and “Bones” as two of his favorite television shows. His last posting illustrates one criticism of residency restrictions for sex offenders that lead to instability when they are released into society.

“I’m poor, homeless and living in my truck,” it says.

Gardner last logged in on Feb. 24, the day before Chelsea went missing.

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More mentally ill sex offenders freed on parole

Posted on April 1, 2010. Filed under: Parole, Prisons |

Lawmakers seek audit of mental health agency

By Danielle Cervantes, UNION-TRIBUNE DATA SPECIALIST

John Wilkens, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 12:04 a.m.

The system that decides whether mentally ill sex offenders are too dangerous to be freed when their prison terms end has seen a tenfold increase in cases since the passage of Jessica’s Law in California three years ago.

But the number of inmates who get committed to an institution has barely budged, according to an analysis of state data by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

One reason is the volume of prison referrals rejected by the California Department of Mental Health. In 2005, the agency approved 45 percent of cases on initial review. That number has fallen steadily, to 17 percent last year.

That trend is one of the reasons a state lawmaker on Tuesday asked for an audit of the government agency responsible for screening offenders.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, said he wants the state Department of Mental Health to explain why so few inmates are ordered into hospitals instead of being released on parole.

“I’ve got serious concerns that (the department) is not fully executing its duty to protect the public from sex offenders,” Fletcher said in a letter sent yesterday to Stephen Mayberg, state mental health director.

Fletcher’s inquiry follows a report in the Union-Tribune on Sunday detailing allegations from child-safety advocate Marc Klaas about the department’s handling of John Albert Gardner III, the convicted sex offender charged with raping and killing Poway teenager Chelsea King.

Klaas, citing department employees who saw Gardner’s psychological evaluations, said prison officials twice recommended Gardner not be released, and twice Department of Mental Health evaluators disagreed.

Placing Gardner in a state hospital rather than releasing him on parole after serving five years for a 2000 conviction for molesting and beating a 13-year-old girl in Rancho Bernardo might have saved Chelsea’s life, Klaas said.

California, like 19 other states, has a civil-commitment procedure that allows officials to keep violent sex offenders in custody past the end of their prison sentences if they have a mental illness that makes them dangerous and requires hospitalization.

When Jessica’s Law passed in November 2006, it changed the criteria for designation as a sexually violent predator from two offenses to one, and lengthened the list of qualifying crimes. The Department of Mental Health caseload exploded.

It went from 636 referrals in 2006 to 6,705 last year, according to the Union-Tribune data analysis.

The referrals originate with prison officials, who evaluate the offenders as they are nearing the end of their terms.

Department of Mental Health psychologists and psychiatrists then look at the cases and decide which ones should get additional screening. That round of screening determines which of those candidates will be sent to local district attorneys for civil-commitment trials.

The number finally placed in hospitals statewide after that process was 23 in 2006, and grew only to 27 last year despite the high number of referrals, the data review found.

A San Francisco attorney who represents a group of current and former Department of Mental Health sex-offender evaluators in a possible whistle-blower suit against the state said the trends are largely due to the state shifting more to “paper screenings” — reviews of written records instead of face-to-face interviews by two separate evaluators.

That has allowed the department to manage the flood of cases and cut costs amid a severe state budget crisis, said the attorney, Chris Johnson. But he believes it’s against the law, which requires a “full evaluation.” To most mental health professionals, doing a full evaluation involves a personal interview, he said.

“Everybody understands the state is having financial difficulties, but if they want to change the law, they should ask Californians to agree, and not do it on the backs of crime victims,” Johnson said. “We already voted on it, with Jessica’s Law.”

A Mental Health department spokeswoman did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment yesterday. In response to an earlier story addressing similar concerns, the spokeswoman said the department’s screening process “exceeds all statutory requirements” and the evaluators “always err on the side of caution.”

In his letter yesterday to Mayberg, Fletcher asked how often the department does “paper screenings” and under what statutory authority.

“I am asking you to help me in this process and to be part of the solution to ensure the safety of our children from sexual predators,” Fletcher wrote.

The assemblyman, who last week announced plans for a Chelsea’s Law to crack down on sex offenders, also wants the Bureau of State Audits to examine the Mental Health Department’s practices.

Trula LaCalle, executive director of the California office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she could not speak to Fletcher’s concerns because she has no firsthand knowledge of interactions between prison and mental-health officials.

But “the Department of Mental Health is overwhelmed in all areas,” LaCalle said. “Mental Health has been underfunded in this state for decades. The laws themselves may not be the problem. The problem is implementation.”

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