By Dave Neese
They’re certified, known offenders, you could say. And there are 16,000 of them out there in New Jersey neighborhoods — 5,200 of them labelled sex offenders.
They’re parolees who have been released under pressure to make room in near-capacity prisons for incoming waves of new inmates.
There’s additional pressure to keep the parolees moving along through four levels of supervision, to categories requiring less intense scrutiny by over-extended parole officers.
The unofficial motto of the system might be: “Keep ‘em moving!” As with a manufacturing assembly line, any unplanned bottlenecks or backups can bollocks the system.
So how’s it working?
A recent state audit has prompted intense debate on the question.
The nonpartisan Office of State Auditor, in a report to the state legislature and governor’s office, noted what it characterized as unsettling parole glitches.
A spot check of parolee cases concluded that many parolees, including sex offenders, are falling through cracks in the system and going unmonitored. This could be dangerous, the auditors added.
The State Parole Board takes emphatic exception to the report. It says auditors failed to grasp the new, smarter approach the system has for supervising parolees these days — what the board calls “evidence-based practice.”
This gives officers training and discretion to focus on potentially problem parolees and to make unannounced visits to check on them, instead of scheduled checks, parole authorities say.
But in a response to the audit, Parole Board chairman James T. Plousis, the former top U.S. Marshal for New Jersey and former Cape May County Sheriff, cited a statistic on which critics pounced. Of 165,873 unannounced home visits by parole officers in 2012, he acknowledged, fully 40,937 found nobody home.
To critics in the legislature, media and elsewhere, this statistic spotlights a troubling flaw in a parole-supervision system that counts on parole officers’ face-to-face contact on a regular basis with parolees.
But Plousis says unannounced drop-ins by parole officers “will always result in a significant number of no-contact visits.” The alternative, he says, is to rely on what he scoffs at as “staged or manipulated visitations.”
One lawmaker who remains skeptical is Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Cranbury. The state’s approximately 360 parole officers have unmanageably big case loads, she says.
She sponsored legislation that included a provision to cap a parole officer’s sex-offender case load at 40. At the request of the Parole Board, however, Gov. Christie deleted the cap from the legislation. More officers, of course, means more pressure on the state budget. The median salary for a parole officer is $73,000.
Sen. Greenstein faults the Parole Board, not the officers, for the system’s problems.
The Office of State Auditor spot-checked 320 parole cases for Fiscal 2012-13 and reported that required face-to-face contact was not made in 148 of them. These cases included, the audit report added:
- 60 spot-checked sex-offender parolee cases, with required face-to-face contact not made in 32 of them.
- 100 spot-checked violent-crime parolees, with required face-to-face contact not made in 48 of the cases.
While the Parole Board’s own official standards set forth face-to-face contact requirements, the board’s case-management protocol “does not require a review of parole officers to ensure compliance with supervision contacts,” the report said.
The Parole Board says it’s augmenting its unannounced drop-ins with drug-detection sweeps and better monitoring technology. The parole system, with a $100 million budget, is the tail-end component of New Jersey’s $1 billion correctional system.
Parole cases have been edging upward while the state’s total inmate population has been inching downward. Still, there are 23,000 offenders under state incarceration, in facilities near their capacity, at an annual cost, for example, of $44,500 per inmate for the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
Some 27,000 parole hearings a year churn out streams of additional parolees to be added to officers’ case loads. The stream of parolees is sluiced through four categories of monitoring. Category I, for example, requires at least two parolee contacts every 30 days; Category IV at least one contact every 120 days.
The Parole Board says the system, for all its challenges, is slowly but steadily improving. In his response to the audit, Chairman Plousis cited a three-year follow-up study commissioned by the legislature focusing on 12,989 inmates who were paroled or who “maxed out” in 2008.
The study, he noted, shows an annual drop in parolee recidivism and absconding. The study found recidivism down by as much as 6.6 percent and absconding down to low, single-digit percentages, around 300 vanishing parolees a year.
Not mentioned in the chairman’s response were less encouraging findings.
The study said that though recidivism was indeed down, it was still at a 41.9 percent parolee re-arrest and re-conviction rate; that on average re-arrests occur within one year of release, and that offenders tend to get collared for doing the same crimes that originally landed them behind bars.