Efforts by probation and parole officers to improve their public image took a big hit with the 18-year abduction of Jaycee Lee Dugard in California and the critical report issued in early November by an inspector general in California.
Defendant Phillip Garrido, a sex offender, was visited periodically by a parole officer, but it took nearly two decades to catch on to the fact that he had abducted the then-11-year-old Dugard and later fathered two children with her.
Granted that it was a parole officer who finally discovered the scheme this summer, why did it take so long?
Experts say that parole officers should be making spot checks on their clients periodically, including thorough searches of their living conditions. Some places use polygraphs, although it is not clear that submitting Garrido to a polygraph exam would have uncovered his scheme.
Veteran parole officers know that sex offenders typically are “manipulative and secretive,” says Bill Burrell, former director of adult probation in New Jersey, who now trains officials. “They don't want people looking around” to find violations of their release conditions. Agents appear to have done only superficial checking on Garrido, Burrell says, adding, “They should have done more aggressive searches of the property.”
Another longtime parole official, who declined to be identified, called the California case a “major screw-up.” Said this official: “One of the main reasons to do home visits is to ensure there is nothing out of the ordinary occurring at the residence. The fact that they did not see the tent [where the young women were living] is unbelievable. Thorough examination of the residence looking for signs of wrongful activities specific to the offender’s criminal history is vital.”
Crime policy in the U.S. often has been made on the basis of extreme cases. Burrell worries that the Dugard-Garrido case will lead to longer prison terms for sex offenders. Instead, he says, it should serve as a good case study for parole officers to uncover rare frauds like Garrido's.
The case also should be a cautionary tale for those who might overrely on GPS devices. Through a GPS system, “we knew where [Garrido] was,” Burrell says. The problem was that officials didn't know what he was really doing.
Probation and parole experts hope that California officials will go public with a complete explanation of what happened–and didn't–in their monitoring of Garrido. The initial signs are not promising. At a mid-September court appearance, a prosecutor said there might not be a trial for 18 months. State officials wouldn't give details of his parole supervision and wouldn't even disclose to the Sacramento Bee the official policy on how often they should have inspected the premises.
This refusal to discuss the case will not help public understanding of the challenges faced by probation and parole officers, who are on the front lines of tracking millions of convicted Americans.