Misinformation Leads to Public Paranoia on Prisoner-Release Plan

That wave of 6,500 is more like a trickle that will come over the course of the year and not all at once, with relatively ‘low-level’ parolees released early but still subject to search and drug tests at any time.

Roughly 6,500 prisoners were supposedly released from California penitentiaries on Monday, January 25, due to state budget cuts and overcrowded prisons.

The presumed swarm of prisoners did not come to a neighborhood near you, though, because the total number of releases was either very small, or perhaps even none.


That’s what happens when hearsay and rumors take over in what appears to be a campaign to thwart any changes to the state’s prison system.

Beginning last year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to save the state from bankruptcy through a dual revitalization of California’s public safety laws and the state’s penitentiary system. He submitted a plan to provide early releases for approximately 6,500 prisoners over the course of 2010. The move intended to cut the state’s jailing costs and also avoid unneeded costs for the courtroom appeals. A federal judge approved the plan, although after much debate the state legislature and the governor are still fighting over it in court.

Moreover, due to dangerous levels of over-crowding at state prisons, many public officials and lawmakers have been prompted to question the role of “parole” in the California penal system. Under the governor’s plan and the new law SB 18XXX, which came into effect January 25th, low-level parolees would be released little by little over this year. These 6,500 low-level parolees would be subject to random search and drug testing on the streets of Los Angeles by any police officer, even without a warrant.

The plan touched off a wave of paranoia among the general public, many blogs, and some other media. Misinformation spread, and many came to believe 6,500 inmates were to be released at once on January 25. The rumors grew with incorrect reports that these newly released prisoners would be unsupervised and set completely free of all legal responsibility participant in rehabilitation programs or other parole programs.

Paul M. Weber, the president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a union for law-enforcement officers, made a public announcement, giving the sense that the new law would be grave and disastrous for the entire Los Angeles community. He called the movement to release the prisoners “…just another example where the government has failed to do one of its primary functions, which is public safety.”

Weber’s perspective has induced many others to follow his outlook. Statements from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development have also taken a grave tone. Little wonder that it all caught the general public flat-footed.

“What the hell,” was about all that Sarah Guidas, an undergraduate at USC, could say amid the misinformation.

Truth be told, the new law is meant to improve prison conditions and save state money for welfare, education, or public transportation. Through lessening the number of low-level prisoners, the inhumane and over-crowding prisons will become more controllable for officers and less packed with relatively small-time offenders. Parolees who were released under the old system were often returned to jail due to minor violations of technical offence, such as returning to a neighborhood that is deemed outside their parole jurisdiction. Under the new law a parolee would be allowed to return to, or travel to, any neighborhood. That means the new law would allow a parolee to return to his or her home, where he or she may have a family. Under the old system a return home might have taken a parolee to a forbidden neighborhood, leading to a parole violation sent the individual back through the court system and onto an already-overcrowded prison cell.

The misinformation about the early release of these 6,500 relatively low-level parolees has in reality created a public paranoia that is unnecessary and hurtful towards change in the state’s system.  By slowly reducing the number of parolees and low-level risk prisoners, penitentiaries will become less crowded and unneeded state spending will be saved. However, many will not see these new changes in this light. Due to heightened public anxiety and worrisome public officials, the grassroots’ truth behind these changes may not be seen.

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