California's Broken Parole and Probation System

The irony seemed unintentional, which made it all the more amusing.

The story appeared in the May 29 edition of the Los Angeles Times.  “Realignment plan for California prisons causing new friction,” ran the headline, below which appeared a photograph of a teary-eyed Pamela Morris, for whom the reader was apparently supposed to feel sympathy.  For those who merely skim the newspaper, glancing only at pictures and headlines, the editorial message was clear: Here was a disadvantaged woman, unlucky in life and put upon by an indifferent justice system.

But if one bothered to read the first paragraph, that delicious irony fairly leaped from the page.  “The first four times Pamela Morris was released from prison,” it read, “she would go to her state parole officers or they would occasionally make unannounced solo visits to make sure she wasn’t committing new crimes.”

And the story goes on to describe the perceived defects in California’s newly instituted program (discussed last year here), whereby convicted criminals who once would have been housed in state prisons are instead serving time in county jails, and those who would have been in county jails are out on the loose but under the supervision of local police and sheriffs.  And it was local police officers, from my own Los Angeles Police Department, who brought poor Pamela Morris to tears for having the audacity to drop in on her unannounced, handcuff her, and search her belongings, all of which they were legally allowed to do.

The first four times . . .

As the story makes clear, the various city, county, and state agencies involved are still adapting to the new state of affairs, as are the convicted felons who, like Morris, grew accustomed to a level of oversight that was often less than effective, hence her three return trips to the calaboose.  But now she feels the boot of the Man on her neck.  Imagine the indignity of having police officers showing up at your door in an effort to verify that you are living up to the terms of your parole or probation.  Why, they never used to do it this way!  I used to go down to the office, or my parole officer would come by to make sure I hadn’t strayed from the path of righteousness.

The first four times . . .

Whatever the defects of the new system,  Morris is living proof that the old one was often ineffective.  Most police officers have experienced the frustration of trying to get a parole or probation officer to take an interest in a particular offender.  Case loads are often so overwhelming that many parole and probation officers are content to process the mountains of paperwork attendant to their jobs rather than take the time to determine if their charges are actually abiding by the conditions imposed on them.  Morris was presumably in good standing with her parole officer right up to the moment she got herself pinched in each of those three subsequent incidents that landed her back in the joint.

And what was it that had her spending so much time behind bars?  Morris is a thief.  Not the worst of criminals, to be sure, but still a thief, one who was undeterred by whatever modest punishments were meted out to her early in her life of crime.  For no one, and I mean absolutely no one, goes to prison for a first-time shoplifting offense.  And in Los Angeles, it takes several priors for any judge to even consider sentencing a shoplifter to prison.  “Morris,” says the L.A. Times, “said she has spent the last decade bouncing in and out of jail and prison for shoplifting or violating her parole by not taking her medication.”

And here the writer, Jason Song, demonstrates a level of credulity one hopes is rare among journalists.  No one, and I mean no one, goes to jail, much less state prison, for failing to take his medication, unless that failure somehow contributes to a person’s decision to commit a crime.

No,  Morris is just a thief, plain and simple.  “She first went to jail in 1999,” says the Times, “for stealing clothes from a Target store.  Ten years later, she said, she was arrested for the same offense: taking baby clothes from an Old Navy in Manhattan Beach.”

The reference to baby clothes is perhaps another lame attempt to arouse sympathy in the reader.  Were the clothes intended for  Morris’s own baby?  If so, who was left looking after the child while  Morris was off serving her four terms in prison?

The first four times . . .

As it happened, the LAPD officers called on Morris at her group home while it was being visited by Los Angeles County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who took offense to the officers’ actions and expressed as much to LAPD chief Charlie Beck.  “It’s not cost-effective,” Ridley-Thomas told the Times, “particularly when there was no imminent threat of danger.”

Perhaps it isn’t, but neither was the system that allowed Morris to go on helping herself to other people’s property year after year.  Heaven knows how much she lifted before she was so unfortunate as to be nabbed on those four separate occasions.

Morris claims she was so upset by the visit from the police that she went back to living on the streets for some time before returning to the group home.  “It kind of set me back,” she told the Times.

Boo hoo.  Morris, like many other released felons, will have to come to terms with the fact that the days of bamboozling her overworked paroled officer are over, and that from now on police officers, people who are happy to get off their keisters and out of the office, will be looking in on her to make sure she minds her manners.

It’s not a job local police asked for, but if it makes people like Morris a little nervous about taking things without paying for them, if she’s deterred to the point she is spared a fifth stint in prison, maybe it will prove to be worth the trouble.