Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Federal litigation seeks individualized review of sex offender cases by parole board

The Dallas News has excellent coverage ("Criminals, advocates target Texas parole restrictions as unfair to sex offenders," Nov. 12) of litigation regarding assignment of sex offender restrictions (dubbed "Condition X") by the parole board, aiming to force the board to evaluate each case individually. The article by Diane Jennings describes the ongoing lawsuit brought by attorneys Bill Habern and Richard Gladden that's already spurring changes in the parole process for sex offenders:

though their efforts mostly have been rebuffed by state judges, they're gaining some traction in federal courts:

• In 2004, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "Condition X" can't be imposed on parolees who haven't been convicted of a sex offense, without an "appropriate hearing."

• In 2006, the Texas parole board quit automatically denying sex offenders access to their own children, after a lawsuit claimed the board did not give a parolee notice or a hearing.

• Earlier this year, federal Judge Sam Sparks in Austin expressed "grave concerns over the fundamental fairness" of such parole board hearings and commented that the Texas attorney general's office, which represents state agencies, "has apparently failed to take such constitutional challenges seriously."

Assistant Attorney General David Morales said his office "takes all constitutional challenges seriously."

Condition X is imposed on almost all paroled sex offenders, from those who had consensual sex with an underage teen to violent pedophiles. In some instances, sex offender conditions are even imposed on offenders who don't have a conviction for a sex crime, but whose offense included a sexual aspect. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, about 90 percent of paroled sex offenders have Condition X imposed on them.

Majority vote

It doesn't take much to require the sweeping restrictions of Condition X – just a majority vote of a three-person panel from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. No face-to-face hearing is held before the vote. Instead, each member individually reviews a "parole packet" with information from an institutional parole officer and prison officials, and any supporting material from the inmate's friends and family.

The system gives "someone who is getting out on parole with sex offense stuff less due process than someone who is having their driver's license suspended," said Mr. Gladden, whose business card bears a picture of the Revolutionary War-era "Don't Tread on Me" flag.

Mr. Gladden and Mr. Habern are challenging that procedure in Judge Sparks' court.

When board members consider putting a convict under Condition X, the inmate doesn't know what evidence is presented against him and has no opportunity to respond. He can't even be sure panel members have read his file, Judge Sparks noted.

A parole division employee testified in one case that board members spend an average of 10 to 30 minutes reviewing materials in each case.

"It would certainly appear that if the voting members actually reviewed the files, the ... [process] would take substantially longer than 30 minutes," the judge wrote.

Parole board member Jose Aliseda, who is a lawyer and former county judge, said the recent court cases "have caused us to examine our policy," and the board is trying "to make sure our policies meet constitutional muster." But he said he's "sufficiently comfortable" with the current process.

In a recent 5-4 decision in one case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found the system acceptable.

Though the parole board and the Attorney General defend the process, even victim rights advocates think the whole hog approach (giving every person with a sexual related offense "Condition X") waters down registration and makes it less useful and more harmful:

Parole board member [Jose] Aliseda acknowledges that the restrictions make life difficult, but "I see success stories all the time," he said. "It's not impossible and it's especially not impossible after an offender has established the trust."

Torie Camp, deputy director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, a victim's advocacy group, said the restriction issue is difficult for everyone.

"I can easily see how being a parole board member, you would want to err on the side of caution," she said. "They want to do their very best to keep the community safe."

Balancing the offender's constitutional rights with public safety is hard, she said. But painting all sex offenders with a broad brush "does a disservice to victims of sexual assault," she said, because the restrictions become meaningless.

Like Mr. Habern, she advocates a more individualized approach instead of the restrictions routinely recommended by the parole division and imposed by the parole board.

"For our own community safety, we actually have to look at reasonable and fair treatment for sex offenders when they're coming back into our communities, so they can reintegrate," Ms. Camp said.

More effective individualized assessment is the key to solving many of the criminal justice system's greatest dilemmas, and this is a good example. Usually we think of needing better assessment more on the front end - is someone a flight risk or are they eligible for bond, what programs should someone receive while in prison or on probation, etc. - but individualized assessment is equally necessary on the back end, when offenders are completing their sentences - certainly in these types of cases.

Parole board member Aliseda claims he hears success stories all the time from supervised sex offenders, but I'll bet if you questioned those individuals who make up those "success stories," you'd find most all of them disagree with his stance. I'm also willing to bet that those parolees families and others in their support network bore a tremendous extra burden to help that person succeed that in some cases may have been unnecessary.

Hopefully Habern and Gladden can accomplish through the federal courts something Texas officials should have mustered the gumption to do on their own many moons ago: Ensure "Condition X" applies only to sexual predators, not low-level offenders who never harmed anyone.


Anonymous said...

It has been stated for many years that the blanket restrictions against all sex offenders makes the system less secure, than if you were to look at cases individually and 'rank' the person according to the real threat they pose.

The real challenge is to rid ourselves of the media/politician created lie that all sex offenders are the same, that consensual sex between teens is the same as a 60 year old pedophile that assaulted his/her grandchild. We also need to get rid of the stranger danger myth that is floating around. With the 90% + majority of Sexual crimes committed in the house by parents, or family friends, we should be looking at the person involved. Seeing that sex offenders that have been caught have the second lowest re-offense rate of all criminals, the ones that are prone tore-offend need to be found and restricted. This restrict all mentality is overburdens a system that is flawed to begin with.

Blanket laws and restrictions were wrong when we put them on the Japanese citizens during WW2, and that same mentality is wrong today.

Anonymous said...

The BPP need to look at it's practices, period.

Anonymous said...

here again, then sexual predator needs to be defined. Not with that old tired ass line of anyone that has hurt (without pre-defining hurt) someone is a predator.. That is what got us in this mess to begin with!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To 12:10 - this is just a blog post so I can only go so deep into these topics at any one time. However, a lot of research has gone into this topic in recent years, and there are pretty sophisticated assessment tools available for evaluating sex offenders that the parole board does not apparently take into account when making its decisions.

That said, where do you think the line should be drawn, if not where harm was done to others?

Anonymous said...

Well, Texas several years ago set rules for a committee to be put into place and tools to be created to gauge Sex Offenders on sentencing. This would allow the proper classification of individuals instead of by crime. There were even provisions to allow certain offenders to be tested by therapists/doctors to see if they were inclined to commit such an offense again. It allowed for an out off of the registry, allowing the ex-offender to rebuild their lives and become a productive part of society.

Many people are out there arecharged/convicted of sexual assault of a child, when the actual crime was sex with a 15/16/17 year old child that was in a bar drinking and went home with the felon.

Harm should be defined by someone far more educated than I. Obviously young children is an automatic, but when teens are involved they should be looking at any force used, the context of the crime. Where as the contact made, what was the situation. Did the offender knock the teen-child over the head, or was the teen-child in a bar with a fake ID? Did the offender know that he/she was flashing their 'things' while urinating on the street? did the victim have other instances of contacting police with similar circumstances as what the offender was convicted of?

There are a ton of things that must be defined. However, The first thing that needs to be defined is did the teen-victim get beat over the head, or did they turn their attacker in due to fear of pregnancy/trouble with parents/afraid they'd be thought loose? Harm over the last several years has become the catch all word for many things. Consumers are considered harmed if they have a bad transaction. People actually believe they are harmed by what people say about them. And others have the ignorant idea that if a Sex Offender lives anywhere on their street they are some how financially or mentally harmed because the SO lives there.

Lately, Media, legislators, and even the guy on the street began to use the word Sexual Predator to equate Sex Offender. Out of the entire Sex Offender population, only 3 to 5% of them are truly predatory. This is the group that needs to be watched forever.

These are the folks that will compose the group of Sex Offenders that will re-offend.

Every case is different and should all be looked at on its OWN merits, not that of a classification based on a title.

Anonymous said...

None of you mention that after 30 and 40 years in prison as is the case with so many "sex offenders" who took a plea at the urging of their own attorney they are now different men. They have aged, they have learned, they have been taught a lesson. That society won't put up with improper sexual behavior. We forget that people have the power to grow, mature, and heal as they age. Consider Piaget and the developmental process throughout the life span. The fact that the human brain continues to expand in enlightenment, knowlege, compassion and consideration as a person ages should be considered in these poor people who were given a ridiculously long sentence for far lesser crimes than Mr. Meza. These long sentences are a tremendous assault on what we call the justice system.

In reading forensic pychological cases Meza rates as a sociopath. Sociopaths have a brain anomaly. They can't heal that I am aware. There are those labeled as sex offenders who took the plea who were co-erced, traumatized, and victimized by the "injustice" system, and some of these people are innocent,while others, their crime was far less brutal than what's written in their hearing for adjudicated probation when they walked out of the hearing with a 30 year sentence by Judge Lynch!

Following a lawyers advice does not always bode well.

These proposals that Mr. Aliseda speaks of are a needed change in a persons consideration for parole. It always should have been individualized. IN fact 10-30 minutes is far too short to spend on consideratin of any person's life. It is my understanding, because Mr. Aliseda told me personally on 2-1-2008 that a murderer is considered by only the three members in his region, while all sex offenders have their case looked at by all 12 board members across the state! As if sex offenses were worse than murder?! Ha! It is good to look at persons's current mental status, his prison behavior, the programs he attended in prison, and how he has changed since the offense that landed him in prison as 15 or 20 years may have already passed. We as a society need to remember that many people make mistakes while drunk or under the influence and when in their right mind would never commit such a crime. And many men/ women rehabilitate in prison. Many do not. That is why the board members need to have trained pychological evaluations for sociopathy. Not all sex offenders are sociopathic child predators. While my step father may have had sexual contact with me when I was 12, I survived and a prison sentence was far too harsh of punishment. He was not a sociopath, just a drunk. Having him stop was proper and fair to me. We have gone way over board in punishing people for inappropriate sexuality. A two year prison sentence could have done the job of the 30 and 40 years sentences we are handing out like candy. Since most sex offenders do 89% of their sentencs according to recent legislative readings I have done, we need to start helping people and their families by passing compassionate laws that bring families together. we can start with conjugal visitation and increased visitation with children and even programs for children to stay over night.

Except in the cases of horrendous offenses like Mr. Meza. 30 years for an attempted sexual contact with a limp penis and no penetration is ridiculous! Maybe 2 years could have done the job in this case. 30 years for a brutal rape and murder is also ridiculous as a life sentence is more in line. Lets let some more people out and give them a fair chance along with individualizing their parole stipulations!

Anonymous said...

I know of a young man who was sent to prison 9 years ago for "failure to comply with the sex offenders registry." He was 18 at the time. He has been eligible for parole for sometime, but hasn't been released because he has not been able to find a home that isn't too close to a school, park, church, etc.

This young man's crime was at age 18 he had consensual sex with a 13 year old. I have contacted the victim in this case and learned that she has a child with this offender. In fact, when authorities learned she was pregnant, they pressed her for the father's name. He was promptly arrested.

The girl is now a young woman. She told me she visits the "offender" regularly in prison, and she takes their 9 year old daughter to visit. Of course contact visits aren't allowed. She said the visits have gotten more difficult in recent years because the little girl will cry and cry for her dad.

This young woman recently told me that she is now an adult and can honestly say that this young man did not rape her, trick her, or coerce her into having sex with him. She was with him because that is who she loves.

He has spent 1/3 of his life in prison. His little girl hasn't known what it is like to have her daddy hold her, play with her, read to her, take her to the park, etc. He will always be a registered sex offender.

It is time to start evaluating these cases individually from the get go, before the plea, before the conviction, before the technical violations of probation, before the probation revocation. Something that should have been done all along. I know of several young men sitting in prison right now who are low level offenders simply because they had consensual sex with another teenager more than 3 years younger. When they are released on parole, they will again be back trying to walk the same chalkline of a high risk registered sex offender. Most of them will be re-arrested on minor technical violations of parole as a result of not being able to find a job or a place to live, or to pay the fines, fees, etc that will be associated with the terms of their parole.

I cannot get the young man and his family that I mentioned above off my mind. My heart breaks for the devastation being caused by the senseless prosecution of these cases.

Anonymous said...

Huge Cheers for Bill Habern! I do not know the other lawyer involved but the same Cheers for him. It is time the courts and especially the BPP be held with their feet to the fire to do a better job. And those Legislators who say there is nothing wrong with the practices of the BPP should be removed from office ASAP!!

Anyone can cry rape, but the accusations are not always true and after a District Attorney gets through teaching the person who cries rape, that person is like a computer answering machine. The truth very seldom comes out in trials, just the verdict the DA wants and not the truth of the circumstances.

I pray for Mr. Haben to win this suite and if I could hug his neck now, I would. He is a tremdous person and is fair and tries his best to help those who need him. Make the BPP responsible for doing the job right and not just however they feel that day and vote out the Legislators who say the BPP does not break any laws!!!!

Anonymous said...

This is the first true statement that i have read concerning how the Parole Board plays God with peoples lives.My son who is not a convicted or registared sex offender, had Stipulation X put on him and is being trated like an animal by the Board and parole system ,they refuse to look at the real facts of the case and instead say that if he goes around any children even accidently that he will go back to jail, keep in mind there are 2 registerd convicted,admitted sex offenders where he lives who are free to do as they please.i can not even bring him home for Thanksgiving, i pray that people open there eyes and treat the real sex offenders accordingly and stop tryting to make someone who is not guilty into a monster.

Disgusted said...

My husband is in prison in Georgia for commercial burglary. He was eligible for parole in May 09. Only after the parole officer came to the house, approved the address and made provisions for release were we told, after some 15 phone calls to the board, that he was being investigated for possible "sex offender" status upon release. It was a huge shock to us both. After hours of dead end calls, a parole office “investigator” told us that the laws in Georgia have changed and now they have access to his sealed juniville records. He went to a high school tribunal when he was 14 for engaging in a mutual sexual act with a consenting 15 year old girl were they both got probation and 9 days suspension from school. My husband is many things, but he IS NOT A SEX OFFENDER. If the board votes for this last minute act of trampling his rights, he won't even be able to come home to our home because we live near a school. This event happened half his life ago and had he never made the bad choice he made 3 years ago that got him into prison, this never would have come up again. I don't think voters realize how the guidelines for the registery don't protect them from real treats, but have the potential to ruin people’s lives unnecessarily.