Keeping track of sex offenders

What to do when California parole officers have way too many cases and not enough resources?

Published September 28, 2009 7:29PM (EDT)

Anti-rape activism often focuses on concerns like how to raise awareness of sexual assault, how to ensure that reporting it is safe, how to press for better sentencing or a higher rate of accurate convictions or a broader cultural commitment to understanding sexual assault and taking it seriously. These are vital. But when the conviction comes, and sex offenders are released from prison, it raises a new set of issues.

Stories like the Philip Garrido case provoke legitimate anger: Why was he on parole in the first place? Why did no one see how dangerous he was? Why wasn't he being watched more closely? A recent piece in the New York Times, on California parole officers, offers something that looks like an answer. Put simply: There are too many parolees, and too few resources.

Darrell Littleton, who deals with sex offenders, has about 40 cases assigned to him -- although, he says, “20 is really the ideal caseload for my guys... With that kind of caseload, I could spend more time in the field.” He also, presumably, could pay closer attention. As it is, he and other parole officers can only check in, and bust them back to prison if they have violated parole or fallen into risky patterns. Legislation to reduce case loads and work for parole officers is underway, but, at least in California, programs that may actually help to prevent repeat offenses – like post-release, state-sponsored psychological counseling – are apparently out of reach.

The actual rate of repeated sexual assaults by sex offenders is the subject of ongoing debate. Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that 5.3 percent of sex offenders are re-arrested for another sexual assault within three years of release; other studies place the rate of repeat offenses higher. The Center for Sex Offender Management says that it's difficult to even establish correct numbers, in part because sexual assault itself is underreported. But one thing experts stress is that sex offenders are not all alike -- some are more likely to commit repeat offenses than others, due to pathology or other factors. Which means that giving them all the same amount and type of attention -- not enough -- is unwise.

While Littleton was being interviewed, one of his parolees became a suspect in an assault on a nine-year-old girl, and, shortly afterward, a fugitive. “We’ll be focusing on him now,” Littleton's supervisor said. Great. And the rest?

By Sady Doyle

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