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Torrance Daily Breeze: Lieu targets state's convict parole program
May 15, 2011
By Don Thompmson/Associated Press
SACRAMENTO - A state senator from Torrance is seeking to halt a newly enacted state law that allows unsupervised parole for thousands of California convicts released from prison after one former inmate was charged with a double homicide in Southern California.
Zackariah Timothy Lehnen, 30, is charged with fatally stabbing and beating a woman and an elderly man this month in Culver City, and faces arraignment late this month.
He was placed on unsupervised parole in November after serving less than five months of a 16-month prison sentence for drug possession.
The Legislature passed the law allowing what it termed "nonrevocable parole" in 2009 as a way to save money by returning fewer lower-level offenders to prison for minor parole violations. The law took effect in January 2010.
Today, more than 13,000 ex-convicts are in the program and are not being monitored.
That means they do not have to report to parole agents and can be returned to prison only for committing new crimes. That's different from traditional parole, which requires offenders to report regularly to parole agents and meet other conditions, such as abstaining from alcohol and drugs and avoiding other felons.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, a Democrat, criticized the computerized risk-assessment program the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation uses to decide when it is safe for parolees such as Lehnen to go unsupervised once they are released from prison.
He called the risk assessment "fatally flawed" in a letter sent last week to Corrections Secretary Matt Cate.
"We are now seeing not just the potential public safety consequences, but actual consequences. More lives need not be lost," he wrote in the letter, which he provided to The Associated Press.
The AP last year documented that some of those released under the nonrevocable parole program had been convicted of violent or threatening crimes. The department said it is following the letter of the law passed by the state Legislature, although Lieu argued it was never lawmakers' intent to leave dangerous felons unsupervised.
The department also confirmed to the AP a year ago that there were problems with the risk-assessment program developed under contract by the University of California, Irvine. The department returned 656 parolees to active supervision after learning that nearly 10 percent of parolees released without supervision had committed more crimes than officials previously believed.
Officials said then that the problem was fixed, but Lieu asked for the department's independent inspector general to investigate whether the computerized program could accurately predict whether ex-convicts are likely to commit new crimes. That report is still pending.
"To me, it looks very apparent that it's not working correctly. And now you have a double-homicide," Lieu said.
Corrections communication director Oscar Hidalgo said he did not have an immediate comment on Lieu's request that the program be halted.
But department spokesman Luis Patino said results of the nonrevocable program compared favorably with traditional parole. Through last October, the latest measurement available, 2.4 percent of ex-convicts on nonrevocable parole were convicted of new crimes. That's less than half the 6 percent re-conviction rate for offenders on traditional supervised parole.
"We simply cannot tell the future. We have scarce resources, and the best we can do is use common sense to focus them," Patino said. "We always know when someone is classified low risk. That doesn't mean they are no risk."
Lehnen, who had no permanent address, is being held without bail in Los Angeles County Jail. He is awaiting arraignment May 25 on multiple charges in the slayings of Erica Escobar, 27, of Santa Monica, and 89-year-old Lucien Bergez at Bergez's Culver City home on May 3.
Lieu said the killings might have been prevented if Lehnen was reporting regularly to a parole agent after his release.
"When you let someone out and tell them they are unsupervised, it does change their behavior," Lieu said.