To the Dugard, King, and Dubois families,
IT'S TIME TO SUE!
From the San Diego Union-Tribune:
Rules could have returned suspect to prison
Officials routinely ignore regulations, critics say
Monday, April 5, 2010 at 12:04 a.m.
During a 1992 traffic stop in Sacramento, eight-time convict Glen Cornwell was arrested in a car with a knife, a gun, some marijuana and rock cocaine.
Normally, that’s big trouble for a parolee.
But instead of returning to prison, Cornwell remained free. Months later, he killed William Reagan outside his check-cashing job over a satchel of money. Cornwell was sent to death row. Parole officials promised reforms that were named for Reagan’s outraged daughter, Robin.
The Robin Reagan rules could have landed John Albert Gardner III back in prison while on parole for a 2000 molestation conviction, subjecting him to additional GPS monitoring and screening as a sexually violent predator who could be held indefinitely in a state hospital.
But the regulations were never fully applied. Gardner is charged with raping and killing 17-year-old Chelsea King of Poway. He has pleaded not guilty. Gardner is also the focus of an investigation into the death of 14-year-old Amber Dubois of Escondido.
Critics say budget-conscious prison officials routinely ignore the Reagan rules, which gave agents and supervisors less discretion and left more decisions to the Board of Parole Hearings. There are 15 rules that apply to all parolees, and three additional rules for serious offenders such as Gardner.
“If you are a serious and violent offender, any behavior even as small as spitting on a sidewalk must be referred to the board,” said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, the Tehama County Republican who pushed through the rules while serving as the parole board’s chairman in the 1990s.
“Six out of the seven times (Gardner) violated parole, he was not referred to the board,” Nielsen said. “The seventh time he got tender, loving care. Those failures are illegal, and they happen tens of thousands of times.”
Parole officials insist they do not overlook any state law or regulation, and they defend their record of supervising violent former felons such as Gardner.
They point out that Gardner’s file was sent to the parole board after he was found living too close to a day-care center, though the referral came 16 months after agents learned about the violation.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last year referred 74,348 cases to the parole board under the Reagan rules, officials said.
“We follow the regulations according to the law,” prison spokesman Gordon Hinkle wrote in response to questions. “Again, it really depends on how the Assemblyman is defining ‘criminal conduct’ or if he believes all violations are ‘criminal conduct.’ ”
The Robin Reagan rules were designed to prevent cases such as the 1993 murder of William Reagan, who was shot in the neck by Cornwell six months after the parolee’s encounter with Sacramento police.
According to the regulations, “any criminal conduct” or “repetitive parole violations” can subject parolees to a board hearing instead of a review by field agents or administrators. Before the Reagan rules, agents had more discretion.
Gardner, who was convicted of molesting a 13-year-old Rancho Bernardo girl in 2000, served five years in prison and three years on parole before being discharged from the system in September 2008.
After Gardner was charged with killing Chelsea and linked by police to Amber’s disappearance, prison officials disclosed that he had violated parole conditions seven times but was never returned to prison.
According to parole records, Gardner allowed his GPS battery to lapse four times. He also missed a meeting with his agent, was ticketed for possessing marijuana and was cited for breaking residency conditions.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last week that Gardner opened a MySpace account despite a parole condition banning him from using computers; agents failed to discover the violation.
Only one violation was referred to the parole board — his living near Miramar College and its day-care center and a middle school.
Hinkle said Nielsen is wrong about the Reagan rules being ignored.
The marijuana citation was an infraction that did not constitute “criminal conduct,” Hinkle said. “Only the alleged residency violations constituted mandatory referral,” he wrote.
State prisons house more than 165,000 inmates in a system designed for about half that number.
A federal court ordered Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reduce the capacity by building more prisons or releasing up to 40,000 prisoners, but the governor appealed that ruling. In the meantime, he launched
programs aimed at lowering both the prison and parolee populations.
Last week, a crime-victims group sued the state to stop the early release of thousands of inmates.
Under a separate plan called nonrevocable parole, thousands of parolees are being converted to a level of supervision that permits searches but does not allow for a return to prison.
Lowering the number of parolees is expected to result in fewer inmates in prison.
The prison agency says the change will free up resources so agents can spend more time supervising dangerous offenders.
But Nina Salarno-Ashford, a former sex-crimes prosecutor who volunteers for Crime Victims United of California, said agents are pressured not to send parolees back to prison. Rules that require revocations to go before the parole board are ignored, in part due to the cost, she said.
The automatic-referral rule “was blatantly ignored on the Gardner case,” said Salarno-Ashford, whose group filed suit to stop the early release of state prisoners. “Corrections gets hung up on what’s ‘a technical violation.’ ”
For example, she said, the ticket Gardner received for possessing marijuana should have been sent to the parole board, even though the amount of marijuana was less than an ounce, because some sex offenders are known to have committed crimes after using the drug.
“That is a huge red flag,” Salarno-Ashford said. “It’s much different than an auto-theft parolee” using marijuana. “You need to take each case individually and look at the underlying crime. Otherwise, we’re going to see a lot more cases like Gardner happening.”
Anthony Caso is a Sacramento attorney who represented Robin Reagan in her 1993 complaint. He blamed a lack of resources for the prison agency’s failure to fully adhere to reforms named for his client.
“We can write all the laws and regulations and studies we want,” Caso said. “But there’s going to be another budget crisis down the road where somebody thinks it’s more important to save a few bucks rather than return a parolee to prison.”
Reagan dropped her claim against state parole agents in 1995 after then-prisons chief James Gomez agreed to endorse the tough new regulations.
In a letter to the murder victim’s daughter, Gomez said he had ordered new training and policies for agents that would “re-emphasize public safety as the overriding concern in all parole-revocation decisions,” The Orange County Register reported at the time.
Jeff McDonald: (619) 293-1708; firstname.lastname@example.org