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Parolee with 19 arrests underscores dangers of new parole law, L.A. police union says [Updated]

March 10, 2010 |  9:36 am
The union representing Los Angeles police officers said Wednesday that a parolee with 19 arrests and four convictions underscores how laws meant to ease prison overcrowding could pose a serious -- and ongoing -- threat to public safety. Ezra Hooker Sr. was arrested Jan. 5 after allegedly pointing a rifle at a prostitute and leading LAPD officers on a high-speed chase on South Los Angeles freeways.

During the pursuit, which LAPD investigators said hit 100 mph, Hooker threw a brick at officers and discarded a rifle before crashing his car. Hooker was found to be wearing body armor at the time of his arrest, police said.

Sources familiar with the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about Hooker's criminal record, said the 43-year-old South L.A. resident had 19 prior arrests dating back to the 1970s, including murder and manslaughter. He served time in state prison for narcotics and gun possession.

Yet he was classified by the state Department of Corrections and Parole as a low-level offender and had most recently been paroled in February 2009, according to sources.

A new law that went into effect this year aimed to cut the state inmate population by about 6,500. The reductions, targeting low-level offenders, are achieved in part through good-behavior credits but also by revising parole rules to stop police agencies from returning nonviolent offenders to prison for minor parole violations.

[Updated at 2:04 p.m.: Oscar Hidalgo, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the new system is designed to prevent “a revolving-door effect” by providing incentives to local law enforcement to charge parolees with new crimes, potentially resulting in longer prison sentences.

He said the system actually would allow parole agents to concentrate more time on individuals such as Hooker, who he said would not have been eligible for the new system of parole because he served time in state prison in 1988 for voluntary manslaughter, which is considered a violent offense.

“Every parolee and probationer has levels of supervision,” Hidalgo said. “This new system does provide a new category of parole, in which many individuals are placed on 'non-revocable parole,' allowing agents to focus their attention on the higher-risk population that they oversee.”

The average caseload for parole agents statewide before the law was passed was 70 parolees for every agent, Hidalgo said. When fully implemented, that caseload will drop to 48 parolees to every agent.]

But some law enforcement officials are warning that there could be more incidents like Hooker's because the new law allows for even less scrutiny of an inmate's criminal record than before.

Paul M. Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents nearly 10,000 officers, said that despite assurances by state corrections officials who say they are monitoring parolees, the Hooker case is indicative of what could be a growing problem for law enforcement in the coming months.

"This latest case further underscores the message that we have been hammering home the past few months – that felon parolees released early from prison pose an avoidable danger to our communities," said Weber. "Combine the invalidation of laws tailored to lessen the danger that felons can pose once they are released with the budget cuts, court orders and legislation giving felons additional 'good time' credit, and we are going to see thousands of Ezra Hookers on the streets."

More than 1,500 nonviolent inmates have been released from county jails across California since Jan. 25 as a result of the interpretation of the new formula by which prisoners receive time off for good behavior, speeding up the timetable for their release.

But some police officials say more attention needs to be placed on how parolees, both violent and nonviolent, will be monitored. The law has long required different levels of monitoring for those released from state prison, with violent offenders subject to more rigorous checks, including more frequent visits with parole agents.

With the new law, those defined as nonviolent will not meet with a parole agent. Nor will they have to go back to prison for violating "terms and conditions" of their parole, although they could be arrested and tried for new crimes.

LAPD Deputy Chief Pat Gannon said Hooker had been arrested and sent back to state prison multiple times on parole violations. But with the new law, police may no longer return people like Hooker to prison for violating "terms and conditions," thereby eliminating "a valuable policing tool."

"For example, in most cases where you have a gang member who is selling drugs, you could 'violate' him if they were at a location where drugs were being sold," Gannon said. "Now, that option will no longer be available to us."

--Andrew Blankstein

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